Naim Haj Kahil is extremely humble considering his achievements in the Jaffa dining scene. His family has a long history of successful restaurants specializing in humous, felafel and shwarma, but their latest restaurant offers diners quality traditional Arab food in a refined environment. During a recent visit to the elegant Haj Kahil in Jaffa’s Clock Tower Square, Haj Kahil took time from his busy schedule to talk to me and my dining partner about his colorful history and the story behind the restaurant.
In 1991 Haj Kahil opened a shwarma place and, based on its success, he opened a humous place in 1997, which is now called Hummus Haj. In 2007 he bought the building where the new restaurant Haj Kahil is now located. Two years ago extensive renovations were completed, and the chef restaurant was opened complete with a traditional design. Haj Kahil says he is very satisfied with the level of success so far.
“I always dreamed of opening a chef restaurant serving local traditional Arab food,” he explains. “First and foremost, before the food, I wanted to offer people a restaurant with a high level of service and cleanliness. A restaurant offering quality food was really missing here in Jaffa. I didn’t want to open just another shwarma or humous place – I wanted to give the people of Jaffa and tourists alike a place that offered quality chef food.”
Kahil was adamant that he was going to provide a level of service and food that hadn’t been seen before in Jaffa. To find most suitable chef, he carried out a sort of “Chef Idol” competition whereby cooks came from the North and cooked meals for 20 to 25 people at a time, including food lovers and chefs. In the end, the honor of head chef was awarded to Omar Iluwan, who gained experience in well-known Galilee restaurants such as Diana, and also owns two chef restaurants in Germany.
When it came to a theme for the upscale restaurant, Haj Kahil was influenced by his family’s colorful history and connection to Jaffa. He explains that the Haj Kahil family has lived in Jaffa for more than 120 years.
Under Turkish rule, the family made a living by driving the diligences – the carriages in which Jaffa’s rich people traveled the country.
“I opened the new restaurant on the site that for years had been the main station of the carriages where my family would work the carts and transport people from The Clock Tower to Jerusalem and Haifa,” he says.
To honor the family’s history, he says he chose the image of the diligence as the emblem of the restaurant.
After explaining the emblem, he says the name Haj Kahil was in his grandfather’s memory. “A Muslim who travels to Mecca to make the pilgrimage changes his name to Haj,” he says. “After traveling to Mecca in 2012, I am now also called Haj Kahil. I have a strong faith in God. I believe that whatever happens is in God’s hands.”
As well as having God on his side, he says that the secret of success is producing food from quality ingredients and focusing on the level of service, cleanliness and how to receive people, as well as having professional staff who know what they’re doing.
His interesting stories and natural charm made me and my friend forget that we were actually rather hungry and while we were fascinated by his anecdotes, we were also happy when the friendly waiter interrupted us for a moment to cover the table with a selection of salads (NIS 45 per diner) and freshly baked specialty bread.
While all the salads were unique and made fresh to order, perhaps the most interesting was the house specialty of fresh sabras with balls of labane cheese (NIS 32). Never one to miss an opportunity for a story, Haj Kahil explained that the dish has special significance for him because when he was younger he used to sell sabras to make a living.
Even though we only made a small dent in the plethora of salads on the table, the talented and personable waiter proceeded to make way for the main course. While at first we thought he was exaggerating about the space we would need, when we saw the size of the plates, we understood that he was right. Even though the waiter and Haj Kahil assured me the neck of lamb stuffed with meat and nuts (NIS 190) was a portion for one person, I was convinced that it could have fed a family of four. Portion size aside, it was full of flavor, and the texture of the lamb was spot-on. My friend’s lamb kebab dish (NIS 70) was less impressive but was still bursting with interesting flavors.
Even though we didn’t have much room left, the waiter insisted that we try the signature knafe (NIS 24) for dessert. The empty plate and the licked-dry spoons left on the table proved that no matter how full one is, when the dessert is good there is always room for it.
We thoroughly enjoyed our evening at Haj Kahil; and while the quality food and excellent service took center stage, it was Haj Kahil’s charm that put a smile on our faces as we left the decadently decorated building.The writer was a guest of the restaurant
18 Raziel (Clock Square), Jaffa
(03) 507-0423; (03) 518-8866