Pleasure hunting - Dan Peretz - April 6, 2012
Diners at Haminzar. Photo by Dan Peretz
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“Three shots of vodka after lunch and five shots of vodka after dinner. No more, and always in moderation.”
− the motto Grandpa Na’um ‏(Hanan‏) Hargil bequeathed to his grandchildren in the 20th century

No one recalls the exact date when Haminzar ‏(the Monastery‏) was built. The mists of time and vapors of alcohol have made its denizens forget such minor details as the precise day or month, but at least everyone can agree on the year: 1993 was when this Tel Aviv institution first opened its doors.

Along with a painter named Pency, Janco Sudovnik, who returned to Israel after many years in New York, opened a tiny pub next to the alleys of the Kerem Hateimanim quarter and the Carmel market. A small room with bare walls, a simple wooden bar, a dishwashing area and a small toaster oven to make grilled cheese and heat up a bowl of goulash − that was it, in the beginning. The painter gave up and left after six months and Janco continued manning the rickety ship, which from the outset has been open 24 hours a day, 362 days a year, but by 1997 was on the verge of closing. And then Lior Hargil came along.

The Hargils, from northern Israel, had three sons. Indeed, the family tree of these three Jewish Cossacks − with their big, tough physiques, flowing locks and pleasant temperament − is worthy of its own article. In any event, one thing they certainly inherited from their forefathers was a bottomless appetite and thirst. They were born screaming for something to drink and to satisfy their mammoth appetites, the likes of which only Gargantua and Grandgousier before them were apparently graced with − they had to devote their lives to the art of eating and drinking. Today, Lior is the owner and chef of Haminzar; Yuval ‏(Jub‏) is a food journalist and the restaurant critic for Time Out; and Itay ‏(Junior‏) is the owner and chef of Habasta restaurant.

Lior, 44, the eldest, served on a Dabour patrol boat in the navy ‏(“That’s where I became a cook: Our good relationships with the fishing boats supplied us with calamari, shrimp, crab, octopus − really lavish meals − and also unforgettable run-ins with military kashrut inspectors”‏).

After his military service, he set off on a long trip. He made it as far as Australia − the Land of Cockaigne for beer lovers and aficionados of the good, easy life, and stayed there for seven years. During that time he studied hotel management and wine marketing in Adelaide, worked in local wineries and was a cook at catering companies and prestigious restaurants in Sydney.

Hargil returned to Israel in 1997 and first came to Haminzar as a patron. This charismatic giant is hard to ignore. He's a very affable fellow, who over the course of his travels has absorbed extensive knowledge of the ways of food and drink. When he left his short-lived job at an advertising agency, Janco offered him a job as an afternoon bartender, with a 50-percent employees’ discount on drinks. No imbiber could refuse such a tempting offer, and so Hargil joined the staff of Haminzar. The afternoons soon featured “happy hours,” with alcoholic beverages sold at friendly prices to those seeking to blur the sharp edges of their daily lives. A modest food menu was added to fortify body and soul.

Pamphlets distributed at hostels and budget hotels brought in citizens of the entire world, who were pleased to discover a local pub that accorded such respect to an age-old tradition. Residents of the first Hebrew city came, too, and the small place, which had gradually taken on the character of the person-behind-the-bar, became very lively. Seeing how well things were going, Janco proposed that the bartender buy the place. Hargil, who had never been particularly fixated on money matters, suggested an equal partnership, and the deal was signed over a drink. In 2001, when the apartment next door was vacated, Haminzar expanded and added a tiny kitchen of just 10 square meters.

After me!

That kitchen is where our story really happens. Looking at its size − about large enough to fit in maybe a pea or two − it’s hard to believe the complexity and variety of dishes that come out of here every day. The culinary adventures at this monastic place actually began seven years ago, at first on weekends. The extensive alcoholic beverage menu is the essence of this establishment. The food menu was conceived as a way to break the boredom and satisfy the palate of Lior Hargil and the rest of the Haminzar gang, a group of pleasure-loving foodies with hearty appetites.

On the restaurant’s ever-changing daily menu, served from noon until 4 A.M. ‏(during other hours only beverages are served‏), there are several permanent items, including grilled cheese ‏(“a remnant of the old days, which the city’s drunks weren’t willing to give up,” Lior explains sadly‏); tahini and homemade pickles; three types of sausages made by charcutier Alan Talmor; matjes herring; and a delectable home-made chopped liver that is fried in goose fat and brimming with the aroma of an authentic Eastern European pub.

From here on in, however, the menu goes wherever imagination, desire and knowledge will carry it. On a given day, one may find classic accompaniments to alcohol such as corned beef, chili con carne, hamburgers, good steaks or fried chicken. Or dishes with cruder flavors suited to an alcohol-soaked palate, alongside surprisingly delicate dishes from Asian or French cuisine. On stormy days, there are soups, fresh pasta and different kinds of stew. On days when the wind is calm and the fishermen return to the sea, you might find sashimi, fried fish, and bruschetta with sardines and fresh horseradish. The alleys of the nearby market provide all the fresh ingredients. The common denominator among all the dishes is their generous size and surprisingly affordable price.

Throughout history, monasteries have provided shelter to people from every part of the social spectrum. Haminzar in Tel Aviv is no different. At the bar and at the tables spilling onto the sidewalk, you find old and young, rich and poor, Israelis and foreigners − all sitting together. And over the years, the kitchen has also seen a colorful collection of characters and cooks. Some have no formal training in cooking; others apprenticed at some of the most prestigious restaurants in Israel and abroad, and chose to join the brigade of this monastic kitchen. A place where no one addresses them by the title “chef,” but where every day there are wild new culinary adventures, the alcohol flows like water, and there is freedom to create and invent new dishes.

Cooks at Haminzar are selected for their talent, but also for their alcohol-imbibing capacity and social skills. Bitter misanthropes would be hard to take in this tiny, knife-filled kitchen.

Unlike medieval monasteries, where the monks devoted themselves to copying pages on which the wisdom of the past was inscribed, at Haminzar they have never saved a single daily menu. Thousands of menus, dishes and recipes over the years − and not a thing remains written down. The reason is easy to guess. This article, too, began with a hopeless attempt to document the varied menus over an allotted period. To that end, we spent days and nights at Haminzar − eating and drinking religiously − and when we looked at our notebook the next morning found only a series of incomprehensible drunken ramblings. That’s what this place is like, this is the character imparted by its owners. A place that lures one to drink to excess. But one thing we can say for certain: There are good days and less good days, some gastronomic experiments work out better than others, but in the past two years we’ve eaten at Haminzar some of the best and most original meals we’ve eaten anywhere in Tel Aviv, and at prices that are significantly lower than at most local eateries.

And another word of introduction, with your permission: Haminzar − how to put this delicately? − will never receive a single Michelin star, and not necessarily because of the nature of the food served there. But the eclectic collection of plates and serving utensils has never aspired to anything beyond basic functionality; stains and scratches on the wooden bar and battered tables add character but also belie their age and the effects of drunken whimsy; and the two bathrooms that serve customers of various levels of sobriety 24 hours a day often reek of urine. It’s crowded and noisy at night. On weekends, the most interesting menus are on offer, but because of the large number of diners, dishes are erased from the menu at a dizzying rate. Whoever is ready to overcome these hurdles is invited to get to know the wonders of this kitchen and what it can do for your palate.

Holy kostitza

Asparagus a la plancha, with soft-boiled egg and Hollandaise sauce ‏(NIS 32‏) / cauliflower soup with pesto and croutons ‏(NIS 32‏) / fresh English muffin with fried eggplant, sheep’s-milk feta, basil and dried tomatoes ‏(NIS 28‏) / black risotto with a variety of mushrooms ‏(NIS 38‏) / inari sushi with raw sea fish, avocado and cilantro ‏(NIS 42‏) / sirloin carpaccio with truffle oil, smoked salt, arugula and pecorino ‏(NIS 45‏) / boudin noir ‏(blood sausage‏) with sauteed fresh pea pods/homemade linguini with spicy fish patties ‏(NIS 45‏) / fish and seafood chowder ‏(NIS 65‏) / kostitza ‏(smoked pork rib‏) and baked potato ‏(NIS 55‏).
− from the Haminzar menu on Friday, November 4, 2011

At one o’clock every Wednesday afternoon, the kitchen staff gathers to decide on the menu for the upcoming weekend. At one such recent meeting, Hargil and the two senior cooks, Daniel and Craig, are drinking beer, discussing the weather and tossing out ideas for dishes. At the next table, members of the South American “parliament” − a cheerful group of former Chileans, Uruguayans and Argentineans, many of whom were formerly part of the undergrounds that fought the generals’ regimes − make their own loud contributions to the discussion.

The basic outline of the menu is decided, shots of Zubrowka − a pale yellow Polish vodka − are lifted, and everyone goes into the kitchen to start the preparations. One gets busy cleaning the cuttlefish; another prepares a marvelous stock made of crab, pastis and saffron for the fish soup; and a third grabs bunches of herbs.

On Thursday evening they make the kostitza − pork rib that is smoked overnight and is heaven for lovers of pork fat. Hargil learned the secrets to the smoking method from his father.

“When we were kids, he discovered the world of smoked foods and began by smoking fish in barrels. He soon saw that with pork meat it was easier to make mistakes, and we became his keen guinea pigs. He himself, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite from a family that was once involved in building the Hurva Synagogue, did not eat pork, but his wife and kids loved it, and family harmony was more important than anything else. If needed, he would taste it while making it, but only with what he called ‘mechanical tasting.’ Not for the sake of pleasure, but only because it was necessary,” Hargil explains.

Holiday fare

Pickled mackerel crostini / green beans and garlic casserole / Jerusalem artichoke with cranberries and sage sauce / goose rillettes with acorn squash and juniper confiture / onion soup with brandy and Emmental cheese / Yorkshire pudding / classic turkey stuffing ‏(without the turkey‏) / pumpkin casserole with maple sauce / meatloaf sandwich served with French fries / smoked trout with potatoes and horseradish / oxtail stew with red wine / roulade of pork loin with potatoes and sage / classic Chicken Kiev.
− from the Haminzar menu of Friday, November 25, 2011

“I’m so embarrassed,” Hargil says apologetically. “For the first time in the history of Haminzar there may actually be two desserts on the menu today. When I came here in 1997 I think they had some kind of cake, but it was the first thing to go. This time Craig begged and I agreed. I stopped the kid on just one thing. Turkey. Desserts, okay, but turkey? I just don’t like that bird. Let him roast chickens and pigs.”
Craig, 26, was born in St. Louis, Missouri and moved to Israel to be near his mother, who has become religious and now lives in Mea She’arim. He began working at Haminzar six years ago washing dishes and now is one of the main cooks.

“Hey, man, it’s Thanksgiving,” says the slender and tattooed young man, explaining the inner logic behind the day’s menu. “Even the vegetarian food is heavy like fuck and that’s the way it should be.”

The disciples of this monastery do not practice any religious or ethnic discrimination. Every holiday, from Chinese New Year to the Australian rugby league final, is an excuse to raise a toast − as long as it comes with a decent meal, too. Last Christmas they served lamb’s neck stuffed with rice and dried fruit, and glazed and crispy Peking duck; for Hanukkah they made Moroccan and Thai potato pancakes and lit candles with the drinkers of the next generation ‏(the offspring of the core group that has made this place their second home − kids who have been crawling around the bar since the day they were born‏); and on New Year’s Eve they served a crab and corn bisque, and smoked goose breast with arugula and fennel. All the dishes, joking aside, are made with high-quality ingredients and executed with utmost seriousness and care, with respect for the techniques of the original recipes.

Market specialties

Pretzel with egg, tomato and feta / spicy eggplant salad / fattoush salad / broccoli soup / lentil soup / quesadilla with black beans, roast peppers and Emmental or spicy chicken / rice with slices of pork, seasoned with chili pepper and cilantro / roast goose breast with fennel and potatoes / burekas filled with chopped pork / Moroccan-style sheep lungs / lamb spleen stuffed with organ meats / pork and pecorino sausages with mashed potatoes / veal and pine-nut sausages with mashed potatoes / lamb sausages with mashed potatoes
− from the Haminzar menu for Monday, January 30, 2011

Daniel Albalak, 36, arrives at the kitchen at seven in the morning. He checks the refrigerator and the pots, to see what’s left from the night before, and then sets out for his daily trip to the market. On weekdays the chief cook decides on the specials for the menu, as these are determined by what is on offer in the market and by the cook’s personal predilections. The regulars − a few of whom are now standing at the bar and heatedly discussing whether to buy land in the dying rural areas of Spain and Portugal, and to establish a gluttonous, peace-loving community of Haminzar denizens there − can tell who is manning the pots just by what appears on the menu.

Dishes inspired by Caribbean cuisine must come from Daniel, grandson of the late peace activist Abie Nathan, who spent a good part of his childhood in Haiti and still travels there often to see his mother and siblings. Dishes lusciously dripping with fat that hail from the cuisine of the American south are clearly the work of Craig, while escargot with butter, French pate in phyllo dough or a rustic Italian dish of pork skin and white beans − these are signs that Itzik Cohen is on duty. ‏(The latter, who formerly worked at restaurants like Raphael and the Yoezer Wine Bar, recently left Haminzar to travel in Australia.‏)

Mullet chraime

Majorca pepper / potato salad with horseradish mayonnaise and Polish mackerel/ pickled fish platter ‏(salmon, red and white mackerel‏) / saltimbocca steak with mashed peas/ minestrone soup / mullet chraime / Asian pork sandwich / laksa noodles with beef and dried shrimp / kidney-stuffed potatoes / crab ravioli / Haminzar mixed grill ‏(lamb organ meats with entrecote‏) / roast beef with potatoes / lemon risotto with asparagus, snow peas and zucchini flowers / sea bream fillet with Turkish spinach salad and roast tomatoes / entrecote with white asparagus and brussel sprouts
− from the Haminzar menu for Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lior Hargil’s “fingerprints” are always easily identified. His presence is felt in every menu, every day. The organ-meat dishes are a testament to his great love for the 5th arrondissement, but also to his delight with a new cookbook he just received this week from abroad − another addition to a library that is full of gastronomical tomes; this one is about traditional organ meat recipes from around the world. We hadn’t actually planned on visiting this bastion of sinners on that evening, but it was St. Patrick’s Day and you don’t mess with the tradition of holy drinkers.

Besides, Hargil had made laksa, a wonderful Singaporean-Malaysian soup that only someone who, like him, has lived in proximity to the fascinating cuisines of southeast Asia, would know, featuring a rich stock of beef and dried shrimp, brimming with strips of meat, rice noodles and eggs, fresh sprouts, ginger and hot pepper. From there things took the usual turn: Shots of whiskey and absinthe ‏(“It’s green! For Saint Patrick!”‏) were used in innumerable toasts.

And the next morning, for the thousandth time, we swore to adopt a genuine monastic lifestyle from now on, far from Tel Aviv’s Haminzar.