The Dining Hall at the Opera

Cheder Ochel, though not your typical kibbutz dining hall, is certainly a culinary experience. From horseradish creme fraiche to savory baklava, they have what to offer. Lindsay Citerman and Nadia Munk explore the options...

Cheder Ochel (The Dining Hall) is far from your typical kibbutz experience, beyond sharing a deep Zionism and an appreciation for cleanliness and organization. We arrived to the restaurant, located in the plaza of the Israeli Opera and the Camary Theatre, noting immediately the pleasant, if a bit snooty atmosphere.

We sat on the patio to enjoy the evening fall breeze and our host immediately offered us the house special frozen drink, a beautiful orange creamy rum and apricot cocktail. Background music provided by a trumpet player on the square added a European touch to the atmosphere. The menu points again to the Zionist inspiration of the kibbutz metaphor, offering a long list of appetizers, calling them Potchim Shulchan ("setting out a spread"). Nadia also noted that the wines are all Israeli, offering a fine selection of local specialties.

We learned that the restaurant occupies three floors. The main floor is a spacious dining room with the waiter-service station prominently displayed in the middle. Cheder Ochel has its own bakery and pastry shop on the lower floor, in which they bake their delicious whole-grain bread with black and white sesame and pumpkin seeds pack on it, as well as all desserts. The rest of the space is dedicated to offices and organization of this clearly well managed operation.

Nadia and I decided that the best way to get a sense of the offerings of this restaurant would be to sample the starters, noting the vast variety in both price and fanciness. After sampling the delicious bread with their version of pesto - a mix of oregano, almonds and parmesan cheese - and an interesting smoky tehini eggplant labane dip, the dishes began arriving. The dip, I must note, was a very interesting mix of sour, smoky and tangy, garnished just so with a bit of sweet date honey. This round offered us stuffed beats in a balsamic reduction sauce, sirloin carpaccio with sea salt, balsamic vinegar, arugula and figs, seared sirloin on a giant latke and fried cauliflower. Each dish was beautifully presented on a simple metal dish offering its own unique flavor. Nadia noted that I was seriously missing out on the full experience of the delicious stuffed beets because I did not taste it with the intended yoghurt sauce.

I must commend the staff on their care with my request not to mix milk and meat on any dish, yet my companion would be happy for the opposite. They were specific and careful, placing small dishes of each sauce next to Nadia for her enjoyment. The most exciting condiment that I missed out on was the horseradish crème fraiche intended for the seared sirloin. Nadia was delighted by this condiment and I noticed it finding its way onto other dishes just because it was so tasty. I personally connected with the carpaccio on a deep level, mostly due to the delicate mix of meaty, salty and sweet with each fig accompanied bite.

After filling ourselves on this round, we received the most interesting part of our meal: sea bream baklava. It exceeded all expectations. The fish was perfectly prepared and silky smooth. Two large bakalawot arrived garnished with an enormous pile of fresh herbs that appeared freshly cut: nana, za’atar and green onion. On each bit, I added a different leaf, making each bit its own unique flavor. A highlight worth waiting for.
We concluded our meal with hot drinks and a dessert sampling: sorbets and cheese-mousse parfait. My companion again made noises of satisfaction as she told me about the light texture of the mousse and the wonderful surprise of a layer of raspberry sauce in the middle.

All in all, our evening on the porch of Cheder Ochel was lovely, certainly offering a large variety of interesting dishes to choose from. We did not even have entrees and we left more than satisfied. Highly recommended as a location for a special family meal or hosting tourists to show them a bit of Israel’s culinary specialties.