NEW YORK — All Adir Michaeli asks when you come into his newly opened bakery on the Lower East Side is that you trust him.
“Take the ugly one,” he often advises customers who find themselves in front of the pile of chocolate rugelach sitting behind the glass at the main counter, trying to carefully select their treat. “The brown one means that it’s baked all the way, but the one that’s falling apart in some places means that you’re gonna have nice chunks of chocolate,” he explains.
Michaeli Bakery, which opened last month, is undeniably Israeli. If the Hebrew-language hits blasting on the stereo don’t give it away, the comforting smell of freshly baked challah and warm burekas will: This could be any Tel Aviv bakery on a Friday morning.
The space itself is modest: long and narrow, with walls covered in rectangular white tiles. A simple thin wooden bar and some high stools line up the sides and a series of potted plants sit on a shelf above.
On the counter, there are many more goodies beside the rugelach: braided chocolate babkas leaning in a row against the back wall, classic South American alfajores loved by Israelis, Moroccan sfenj doughnuts – labeled here as a vegan, to fit better into the New York food jargon – and perhaps most importantly, the burekas – cheese, potato, spinach and even a rolled pizza-flavored kind, one of Michaeli’s personal favorites.
“The pizza bureka is something that I knew I had to bring here, because it’s combining our bureka and their pizza and it may expose [the American public] to the rest of our burekas, they will trust me more,” he says.
The escargot-shaped pastry is filled with a homemade, rich tomato sauce, olive tapenade, feta and gouda cheese. Michaeli only serves it warm, like a fresh slice of pizza. Eating it cold, he says, is completely unacceptable and ruins the experience. “When people order, I don’t even ask. I just say, ‘OK, give me two minutes,’ and I warm it up,” he explains as he shows off his creations on the counter, which he says are “like my children.”
Baking was a natural fit for Michaeli. After he finished his military service in Israel, the Holon native knew his energetic personality was not a good fit for a desk job and decided to take a course on baking. “I have attention deficit disorder, I am aware of this,” he says. “I have to do something that’s good for me.”
He soon became fascinated with the chemistry behind baking – temperature, hydration, timing – the science of it is what he likes best. “Taking a raw material and transforming it into a product, you need to give it your own touch, you need to understand the raw materials, the interaction between them, and make adjustments,” he says.
After running the pastry operations at the famous Lehamim bakery in Tel Aviv, he moved to New York in 2013 to oversee the opening of its first branch abroad, known here as Breads Bakery. Several other locations have opened since then and it has become a real institution, famous for its chocolate babka.
“I am someone who needs a lot of action,” says Michaeli. “I thrive under pressure, with crazy challenges. I realized this during the peak of the holidays at Lehamim in Israel. The more action, the more balagan, chaos and the more things happen at the same time, [the more] that’s completely me, that’s when I’m at my best.”
A taste of success
Michaeli Bakery, his first solo endeavor, is located on the edge of Chinatown and isn’t chaotic just yet, although he is cautiously optimistic. Michaeli recently got a taste of what high demand looks like when a critic for the publication Food52 unexpectedly fell in love with his take on the classic European kugelhopf – a yeast bread with raisins – and deemed it “the best snack in New York.”
“I didn’t think it would come to such a high,” he admits. “There is no chocolate in it.”
Although the kugelhopf is a classic in the pastry world, and Michaeli admits that “touching a classic is a bit sensitive,” his Israeli chutzpah pushed him to modify it. “I think [the original] is a bit boring,” he ventures.
After “playing with the dough” and trying out some processes that were “borderline against logic,” Michaeli’s kugelhopf was born.
“You want to try it?” he asks, getting up from his chair with enthusiasm. Less than a minute later, he comes back with the crown-shaped pastry in a small metal tray lined with parchment paper. From the outside, it looks firm, almost like a rock, with its rough sugar crust. But once it’s ripped apart, it reveals a soft buttery belly exuding flavors of citrus zest, almonds and raisins.
“People ask, ‘What is this? What’s in it?’ and I say, ‘Just try it. ... Trust me, if it’s not good, I’ll give it to you for free,” he says. “It’s very hard to describe [the kugelhopf] if you don’t taste it. It’s the kind of thing that you bite into and it comes to you later that there is something good in this.”
Jewish or Israeli?
Israeli food and pastries have gained popularity in the Big Apple over the last few years. But even before this trend, New Yorkers were already intimately familiar with Jewish delis and bakeries. Long-standing places such as Moishe’s Bake Shop and Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery on the Lower East Side are considered city landmarks. However, food writer and entrepreneur Jeffrey Yoskowitz explains that what New Yorkers have always known as Jewish bakeries are in fact Ashkenazi, or Eastern European-style bakeries.