Outside the dimly lit Library Bar of the Tel Aviv luxury hotel The Norman, a famous British film director snatched a few moments with his wife and friends last week. In the bar sat a prominent Italian entrepreneur, who is also reputed to be the world’s top bartender, and nearby a renowned Venetian jewlery expert sipped her mango punch.
But if chef Barak Aharoni were to pass by in the lobby, hardly anyone would recognize him. In this age of the celebrity chef and reality cooking shows that churn out ready-made stars, he’s a different breed. Even after 13 years of working in some of Israel’s most acclaimed restaurants (“Raphael,” “Toto”), and with some of the biggest names in the local restaurant world, for the most part he still manages to quietly stay below the radar.
Now he’s ready to take center stage, along with Alena, his new chef restaurant on the hotel’s lobby level. But this comes after more than a decade running places like the splendid seaside Tapas Bashuk, now gone and much missed. For the past three years he was the executive chef of the brasserie-style main restaurant of The Norman. His new restaurant is in the same space, but is completely different.
Aharoni says the change was sparked by the visit of a famous chef “who makes street food and who opened my eyes when he said that nothing here tells him who Barak Aharoni is. That’s when it really dawned on me that the cuisine here is not who I am.” That’s also when he realized how far he’d drifted from the uncomplicated Mediterranean cuisine with which he felt most comfortable. “To me, making good simple food is much more of an art than making all kinds of mousse and putting 700 ingredients on the plate.”
“I used to try very hard to look like everyone else,” he admits. “I’m not going to play the game of adding all sorts of ingredients and all kinds of cleverness anymore, even when it’s tasty and people like it. It’s just not who I am, and I want to do ‘clean’ cooking that is simpler and more direct.” Accordingly, Alena’s menu has much more vegetables, olive oil, whole fish and roast chicken. “Food that doesn’t create chaos in your mouth, where afterward you don’t ask yourself, what was that? Real food, in other words.”
It’s only because Aharoni is finally at peace with the food he is offering that he feels ready to take the spotlight, physically and metaphorically. While many Tel Aviv chefs are closing big restaurants and taking to the street with hamburger and fast-food stalls, Aharoni is opening an everyday chef restaurant in a luxury hotel, and in the same breath talking about going there during the day to sit at the bar. “People don’t know we’re also open in the afternoon and early evening,” he says. “It could easily be a daily place too, where you come to have a hamburger and beer. We definitely want to open up to new groups, because people don’t think of this place as somewhere to go for a fun, relaxed time. It’s just a matter of perception. People think they need to dress up to come here but that’s not true. It’s a fancy hotel but it’s absolutely no more expensive than other Tel Aviv restaurants.”
The change can be deceptive. Alena may share the same space where the Norman restaurant used to be, but it is light years away from it, at least as Aharoni sees it. The new restaurant is named for Alena Lourie, the widow of Norman and the mother of the hotel’s owner, so the close relation is still there, but the essence is quite different. At Norman, Aharoni drew inspiration from the cuisines of southern France, but at Alena the focus will be on local Mediterranean or Levantine cuisine. The restrained elegance of the setting has remained almost unchanged, but the change is still palpable. “We let go of the south of France for the sake of stuffed cabbage,” Aharoni remarks with a contented grin.
Asked about the change of name, he says: “It’s still a restaurant in a hotel but one that stands on its own and so it needs a name of its own.” On the menu you’ll find, besides a stuffed cabbage with rice, mangold, black raisins, samna (clarified butter) and labaneh; asparagus with anchovy vinaigrette and raw vegetables; lamb dumplings with sour cream and samna with spinach and chili — “a version of shishbarak that has already become a flagship menu item”’ and Cornish hen roasted with sage, chili and samna. A few items from the old menu remain, ones that Aharoni says he couldn’t remove even if he wanted to — black quinoa and bulgur salad with edamame, almonds, pecans and mint, here called tabbouleh; and the famous hamburger, made of coarsely ground entrecote and served on brioche with or without bacon and cheese.
Aharoni says his chef restaurant isn’t about shaking up the world or about going overboard with ingredients and trying too hard. “On this level, the concept of Michelin is so passé,” he says. “It’s no longer interesting. When the plate is served to you and there are a million things on it and you can’t tell what you’re eating: That’s no longer exciting. It’s not an experience, it’s just a story,” he insists. But identifying Alena as the chef restaurant of Barak Aharoni, which wasn’t the case with Norman, at a time when chef restaurants are disappearing from the landscape, is an unusual step to take.
Why fix something that isn’t broken?
“At some point I realized that I wanted to really be true to myself. There’s a crazy amount of restaurants out there. People want to go out every day but only to spend 100 shekels ($28) a head. It’s very hard for a chef restaurant to survive, but it’s very important to have this kind of restaurant – not out of arrogance, not because the chefs are so important, but in order to be innovative and creative and forge a path.” For Aharoni, opening a chef restaurant that will reinvent the concept and serve good simple food is a mission.
Alena in The Norman. Sun.-Thur. 7-11:30 A.M.; 12:30-3 P.M.; 6-10:30 P.M., Fri., Sat. 7 A.M.-2:30 P.M. (brunch); 6-10:30 P.M.