When Einat Admony and her husband Stefan Nafziger first opened the doors to their West Village falafel shop, Taïm (222 Waverly Place, 212-691-1287), in 2007, Admony didn’t feel proud. “I was a little ashamed,” she admits. “I was at a really nice restaurant before Taïm, and to open a falafel restaurant, especially for an Israeli, felt a little shameful.” That didn’t last long — the couple took a simple street food item and made it into something truly special, and after a bit of a rocky start, Taïm became a beloved neighborhood staple and a great springboard for Balaboosta (214 Mulberry Street, 212-966-7366), the “real restaurant” the pair opened in 2011, and modern Israeli eatery Bar Bolonat (611 Hudson Street), which opened last week.
Admony was young when she started working in the kitchen. “I didn’t have a choice at the beginning,” she says. “I came from a very religious family. I never grew religious; I was always the black sheep. But I grew up like that, and one amazing thing that I miss and keep in my own house is Shabbat with my kids and friends. When I grew up, Shabbat meant start cooking on Thursday and into Friday evening. Dinner was five courses,” after which the entire family would observe the day of rest. In anticipation of that meal, Admony’s mother would put her to work peeling leeks and cleaning the lettuce until she was deemed ready to help create dishes.
Admony entered the military at 18, and then, after two months of college, headed off to Europe, where she spent four years in Germany and one in Amsterdam. She continued to cook, so when she returned to Israel determined to start a career at age 24, she decided cooking was the only thing she could do for the long haul. “People ask me what I would want to do if I wasn’t a chef, and I say, ‘Unemployment, probably,'” she says. “I like other things, but none as much as cooking.”
She enrolled in culinary school and then landed a job in one of the best restaurants in Israel. After two years, she decided to come to New York, and she worked her way through kitchens dealing in all sorts of different cuisines; her resume includes Patria, Bolo, Tabla, and David Bouley’s Danube. She met Nafziger at Danube, and they stumbled into the Taïm space thanks to a couple of friends who owned the place next door. Six months after Taïm opened, the couple’s first child was born (they now have two), and they’ve spent the years since growing that first concept while developing Balaboosta and building out Bar Bolonat.
Here, Admony talks about hype she hates, what she wishes diners would pay attention to, and what she’s planning for the future.
How did Taïm happen?
It came to me — it wasn’t my dream restaurant. Our friends had a cafe next door. They told me the place was open, so we started a partnership with them and then split. The first year, we almost closed the place. We got very lucky and the falafel was great. I thought Taïm was going to be a three-month venture and that was it. We worked very hard. Taïm opened with me giving birth to my son, and then I had kids and didn’t work for awhile. When my youngest was a little less than a year, we opened Balaboosta. That was my dream — a real restaurant with real seats.
So what was the vision for Balaboosta?
I wanted to cook. I didn’t want to be too limited — that was my biggest problem. I wanted to leave options open because I cook other food as well. My experience in restaurants in New York is varied — Austrian, Latino, Spanish, Italian — so I didn’t want to limit myself at Balaboosta. So it’s Mediterranean, and it comes from Morocco, Italy, France, Spain. That was the point.
What about Bar Bolonat?
The idea is to take Israeli food to the next level and expose people to what it’s about. It’s a more modern take on Israeli food. And what’s traditional, what people know — it’s not actually traditional. It’s a big challenge. At Balaboosta, there are a lot of Israeli dishes. But here, I wanted more Israeli food.
Why Soho and the West Village?
[The Taïm location] picked me. And this [Bar Bolonat address] also picked me. I like this neighborhood after 10 years in Taïm. I miss the crowd. People live here forever. There are some nice people around, and they are such big supporters of Taïm.
Any dish highlights at Bar Bolonat?
The cauliflower-bamba. I used to eat it almost everyday. Bamba is a peanut snack; they feed it to us starting when we’re three months old, and we’re all immune to nuts allergies there. It’s peanuts, tahini, and lemon, and you fry it in rice flour. We mix it with crispy cauliflower. The Jerusalem bagel: They’re sold by Palestinian kids out of the holy wall. They’re big and full of sesame, and they bring you a newspaper full of za’atar. They’re a little different here; we make our own za’atar, and we use nice olive oil. The pickled chickpea with fennel pollen and juniper is really great. We serve it with lamb and chickpea purees. It’s a nice dish. We’re doing a Yemenite curry with shrimp; it’s made with preserved lemon, schug (the green sauce we serve at Taïm), coconut, and pineapple. You get four shrimps inside, and it comes with malawa, which is like a flaky Yemenite roti.
What’s the biggest challenge with translating Israeli food here?
I don’t want to translate, actually, so I just stick to what I believe in. Sometimes people don’t understand, but for the most part, people are very open about food and what they’re eating — they understand what’s healthy and in season. And people like more foods. They’ll eat any ethnic food these days.
Is it hard to get certain ingredients?
Some day I’ll grow my own za’atar. For now we mix herbs that are very similar.
Tell me about your annual Passover seder.
It’s always a collaboration. The first year, it was Alex Raij from Txikito and Fany Gerson; last year, it was David Tanis from the Times and Willa from il buoy. This year, it’s Missy Robbins [formerly of A Voce] and Mindy Segal [pastry chef at Hot Chocolate in Chicago] so it will be more Italian. We bring in a live, crazy band, and it’s all about Jewish ritual, but in a fun way — we’re going to do afikomen. In the Passover seder, the afikomen is for the kids: We hide the matzo, the kids find it, and they get a prize. We’ll do the same at Balaboosta, but in the form of a raffle. Last year, we gave away a mini iPad. The chefs talk, we sing the songs, we redecorate really nice. It’s really fun. And it’s just one night, one seating. Every year, people go crazy. And everyone sits together like in my home.
Talk to me about the state of the New York restaurant industry.
It’s been awhile since I went out because I can’t right now, but there is a lot of new talent, which is great, and a lot of trends that I hate. It’s like, “Are you for real?” It’s food. People wrote me a poem about the falafel at Taïm. It’s too much. Even for me. The falafel is amazing, but it’s weird when people take it that far. It’s a little bit like the emperor’s new clothes — and I hate that. Another thing I hate: I already have Yelpers [at Bar Bolonat]. I’ve been open two days. Give me a chance. I’m running around like a chicken with no head.
What do you wish people paid attention to?
To themselves. I wish they would believe what they think, like, and taste — not what someone else tells them to think, like, and taste. If I don’t like this restaurant, does it mean I don’t know anything about food? No.
What do you wish you could tell diners?
Believe in what you believe. Order a lot of small things. Be nice. Create something fun and not too uptight.
What are your goals?
I’d like to grow Taïm a little — it can be grown. I think two is enough for restaurants, though. I would love to help young chefs open places, but I don’t want to run the kitchen. I don’t mind being a restaurateur, but I only want to be a chef of two restaurants. But we can make a lot of Taïms. I will never make more Balaboostas or Bar Bolonats. And I will never franchise — I would never let someone else run Taïm. Those are our blood, sweat and tears in it — it’s been a lot of craziness. It wasn’t easy, and it’s amazing now. It was our first baby — I would never let someone else run it just to make money. But I would like to grow it — anywhere it’s hot, I can travel.
Best place in the city for a coffee or tea:
La Colombe (that’s what I have here) and Gimme Coffee. But I’m very particular about my cappuccino. I don’t let anyone do that because no one can. I trained one waiter.
Best place for a drink:
The Red Rooster.
Best special occasion restaurant:
Recette and Tomate Rouge. They have really, really good food.
Best no occasion restaurant:
Cafe Mogador. And Roman’s in my neighborhood. And Lulu and Po. I live across from it.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Underrated person in NYC restaurants:
General managers. They work really hard and get nothing. My husband is underrated — he’s running all of our businesses.
Best dish you’ve had out recently:
At Roman’s, there was a shrimp dish that I thought was crazy. It was delicious and simple, and I ordered another two after I ate it. That’s very rare. And I’m not crazy about shrimp. It was perfect.
Person you’d like to cook for:
I’ve cooked for all of them at Taïm. But more personally, President Obama.
Person you’d like to have cook for you:
Anyone would be fine — I don’t care who. Nobody ever cooks for me except for my husband. Maybe Anthony Bourdain.
Something you love about the New York restaurant industry:
It’s endless. There’s so much. Whatever you like, you can get — and that’s even if you want to eat cheaply.
Something you wish you could change:
The bull shit hype. Except for the hype about Taïm.
Pressing industry issue:
The Department of Buildings and the Health Department.
Anything in your story that’s gone untold?
Israeli food is underrated. I want to go to Israel and do a big piece on Israeli food in Israel and how it’s changed.