(photo credit: Ron Friedman )
My mouth began salivating the minute my friend started describing the special "barbarians' meal" he had participated in the evening before. It didn't take more than a couple of sentences for the idea to connect to a primal part of my brain, which began writhing with desire.
French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau once observed: "Greater eaters of meat are in general more cruel and ferocious than other men." If his observation is true, then my experience was an exception, as you couldn't meet a friendlier and more joyous group of people than the ones I sat down to feast with, when my craving was finally satisfied.
The concept is very simple: One of the top steakhouses in Tel Aviv hosts 20 drooling carnivores for three hours of medieval decadence.
NG, located in Tel Aviv's historic Neveh Tzedek neighborhood, is usually far more refined. Established six years ago, it introduced the porterhouse steak to the Israeli food scene and quickly established itself as a solid contender for the country's top meat restaurant.
In October, NG celebrated its sixth birthday in barbarian style. There was such a good response that NG's owner and manager, Giora Ashkenazy, decided to adopt the format and turn it into a weekly celebration. Since then, the restaurant has been booked solid. Every week, people come to take part in the sensuous feast and gorge themselves till they satisfy their lust for meat.
The evening starts at eight sharp. Upon my arrival I was asked by the hostess to wash my hands, after which she led me to my seat. When I saw the table, I understood why they insisted on hand washing. The sole utensil on the table, if you could call it a utensil, was a sharp-looking axe.
The large oval wooden table was covered with a paper sheet, and the only things in terms of cutlery were earthenware cups and jugs, which I quickly learned were full of wine and ale.
On every seat there was a plastic apron, there to protect diners from the flying juices and scraps to come. People were at first shy to put it on, but quickly got into the mood and played along.
While a single party can book the whole table, on the evening I was there, there where two groups and a couple, who were there to celebrate the husband's birthday. Most of the table was made up of men, but a few ladies were also on hand to share in the carnage. As the evening wore on, and the atmosphere became more drunken and festive, inhibitions dropped and everyone came together around the food.
THE MEAL started with the ultimate do-it-yourself Caesar salad. A whole head of lettuce, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese was placed on the table along with fresh warm loaves of rustic bread. Guests tore at the lettuce with their hands and dipped the leaves in a rich creamy dressing.
The wise ones with foresight knew not to fill up on the bread, as the real food had yet to come out.
It wasn't a long wait. The lettuce was soon replaced by a braised oxtail in chestnut sauce. Three large wooden trays, carrying the thick moist and meaty tails, were placed on the table. Hands quickly reached out and tore at the flesh, breaking it apart. Everybody got a few of the links and began gnawing away on the flavor soaked bones.
"I don't understand why they bless the a fish head on Rosh Hashana. The tail tastes so much better," quipped one of the guys at the table.
I quickly learned that the group sitting to the
right of me consisted of officers who served in the military together, at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv. Later in the evening, I learned that the group sitting to the left, were also military men, celebrating one of their member's promotion.
Following the oxtail came roasted ducks. The fatty birds were crisped to perfection and the flesh practically fell off the bones, making the job of splitting it up into portions easy to do by hand, even without the help of the meat cleaver we were given for the purpose.
The cleaver did prove extremely helpful for the next course. Four waiters were needed to carry the two large wooden trays that came out next, each holding two whole legs of lamb.
The lamb was well cooked throughout, with the outside black and crispy and the inside pink and fleshy. The waiters were also happy to take the leftover meat back to the kitchen to be reheated, when we got to the parts that even the most extreme carnivores found too rare to eat.
Along with the lamb came a huge pile of roasted winter vegetables, all served in a huge carved-out pumpkin.
Between the courses, those who didn't simply lick their fingers clean, could wash their hands in communal bowls filled with water and lemons to wipe the grease off.
We decided that the birthday boy should have the honor of dividing up the next course, a whole roasted piglet laid out on a bed of caramelized radishes, along with the obligatory apple in its mouth.
After hacking away at the meat until there was nothing left but the few inedible parts, a break was in order. The smokers went out for a cigarette and those who remained undid the top button of their pants, freed their bulging stomachs, and sipped on the fine Zinfandel wine that came out with the meal.
Even when it seemed as if no one could eat another bite, the waiters brought out two beautiful masses of meat. Sublimely grilled chunks of prime rib and fillet brought people back to the table, and the more skilled butchers were put to work of dividing the meat to the diners. With Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody in the background, we concluded the carnivorous part of the meal.
Fresh apple slices and small balls of butternut squash dipped in a rich and spicy chocolate fondue made a fine dessert for a group of bloated and tired gastronomic warriors.
The espresso coffee and the line at the cash register took us out of the dark ages and brought us back to the 21st century. As the guests rolled off their seats to pay the bill, I got a chance to hear some of their conclusions about the meal and experience.
"It was wonderful, like a fantasy come true," said one of the guests. "I'd always dreamed of eating like a knight of the roundtable or something like that and this was as near as they come."
"I don't think I'll eat again for days, but it was totally worth it," said another.
The birthday couple left full of smiles, and when I asked if they'd be back for next years birthday, too, the husband laughed and said, "Ask me again tomorrow."
In my own opinion the food was nearly perfect, but what I was missing was more of a medieval atmosphere. I would have loved it if it was darker, and if the lights were made by the open flame of candles or torches. I could also do with a change of music. I like David Bowie as much as anyone, but eating a barbarian meal with Space Odyssey in the background was plain surreal.
Ashkenazy said that the magic of the barbarian meal is in its sensuality.
"It's a clichÃ© to say that you should eat with all your senses, but in this case you really do. Touching the food with your hands adds a whole new element to the meal. You feel the heat and the textures on a different level. If you don't mind getting a bit dirty, it's the best way to eat."
Ashkenazy said that when he started offering the barbarian meals, he thought it would be nice to do it once a month, but demand turned it into a weekly ritual, booked solid until the end of February.
"There's something really unique about it. It's they type of thing people fantasize about, but never dare live out, definitely not in a fine dining setting," said Ashkenazy.
Because of the success of the concept and the obvious demand for it, NG is currently opening a catering service so that people can have the experience wherever they want.
"We believe people who have eaten here or heard about the concept will want to experience it in their own homes with family and friends. All we need is a sturdy table. We'll bring the aprons and axes with us and relive the barbaric feast anywhere," he said.