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Haim Nello is Romanian and so is my father. Haim Nello invented the steak-in-a-pita sandwich. My father invented the everything-goes-between-two-pieces-of-bread sandwich. Such similarities between two such minds provided two great reasons to celebrate my father's birthday at the Romanian grill house Haim Nello. Though, anxiety still abounds. You see, my family does not go out much.
A few years back, my sister and I convinced our parents to celebrate birthdays at restaurants - not an easy task. Romanian and Polish, my parents have heavy stereotypes to live up to. As such, every restaurant visit prior to this birthday tradition, ended with my mother claiming her ability to reproduce the same food at home, less expensively. And she would. The same dish produced receipts proudly in hand with taste not an issue. My father was fine with this arrangement, always preferring the solitude of our four-member family, none of whom he had to tip.
Hence, choosing a restaurant is always a formidable chore. Qualities we desire for improved chances of satisfaction are: great atmosphere, unique dishes (with preference for seafood - since my father views it as something unlikely to be made at home) and reasonable prices. I was hoping that traditional Romanian cuisine would help my father recall memories of his childhood in Bucharest - a great component for a birthday meal. Luckily we got the memories and the food. The service was something else entirely.
Haim Nello is an institution. My parents had eaten there when going out proved a less daunting experience, about 20 years ago. Then, two years ago, the restaurant closed down, re-opened three months ago by Nello's sons, Ofer and Dov, with an attempt to add a younger touch to the classic grill house. Upon entering you notice the well-stocked bar and leather sofas scattered around. Though, mixed with the heavy brown curtains and the striped brown columns it seemed a weird mix between fashionable restaurant and kibbutz dining hall.
After glancing over the unique cocktail menu, I attempted to order off it from our waitress. She suggested I speak with the bartender directly since she... left mid-sentence. I followed her advice but, according to co-owner Ofer, the bartender was too busy to mix. I can only assume he either doesn't know how to make the drinks or he truly was overworked with serving the two other tables there at the time.
We began with salads (NIS 15-20). My mother and sister loved the ikra, all of us the sour cabbage and no one the humous. The fried shrimp (NIS 72) were a big hit with my father, causing him to explain his dietary preference, "We didn't get much seafood in Romania." He elaborated, "They have seafood on the menu to attract diners in general. Real Romanians in Israel are disappearing and with them the desire for an authentic, all-meat meal [including Romanian horse-sausage]."
My father's next course was ciorba soup (NIS 28). Upon tasting it he let out a, "wooo, that's good." A traditional Romanian vegetable soup, the name ciorba has its roots in shourabat, an Arabic vegetable soup. "Romanians have very few original foods or words. We are thieves," he shamelessly admitted.
For my own main course I'd wanted to order the one vegetarian dish the website mentioned - pasta. When asked, the waitress again seemed perplexed. "There is no pasta," she said, again walking away without explanation. She returned a second later and took our order with no mention of pasta. So I stayed with bread and humous and my family enjoyed their Romanian kebab, sirloin steak and ribs (NIS 50-80). For dessert we had papanash, a sort of doughnut with cheese and sour cream (NIS 25). My father had heard of this unique dessert but had never tried it - he loved it. Though, "Romanians don't like it when everything is sweet," he said.
I cannot think of better words to describe Haim Nello. We enjoyed our experience but it wasn't all sweet. I hope the drawbacks were due to its recent re-opening and, come more experience, Romania will have a place to be proud of again.
Haim Nello, 11 Eilat St., Tel Aviv. (03) 510-1919 - open Sunday to Saturday from 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. Not kosher.