My Second Home

In every city I move to I search for a second home, a place where I can relax after work and feel welcomed. Gila Carlin, the owner of a small counter-serve Mediterranean restaurant in Gramercy has provided exactly that.

Gila grew up meandering through the famous market in Jerusalem always learning new ways to cook from the talented vendors and artisans. When I showed her the recent Jerusalem cookbook by Ottolenghi, she seemed to be more intrigued by the people in the pictures than the food, repeating as we flipped through the pages, “I know her, I know him. That is the guy that taught me how to make Kubeh or that is the woman that taught me Moroccan Fish.”

She practiced what she learnt every week at her Family’s regular Shabbat dinners. Her dad had eighteen siblings and she had nine, so cooking for the family meant cooking for upwards of fifty people — not an ordinary weekly routine.

Eighteen years ago, she moved to New York with her husband. Before meeting him, she did not have any intentions to leave her family. Family was everything and still is. Now away from Israel and her extended family, she builds a family of her own at her restaurant.

Gila prides herself on traditional Israeli foods she used to prepare growing up: matzah ball soup, kubeh, zatar chicken, chicken schnitzel and falafel are some of her specialties. What makes her food so special is its authenticity. Like a Bob Dylan or Pablo Picasso, Gila refuses to compromise personal integrity and tradition for popular demand or money. Her falafel, for example, is made of pure chickpeas. The thought of making extra profit by filling it with breadcrumbs, like the vendors do, is crazy to her, “my food is unique. The recipes are very, very traditional and authentic. People come only for that.”

Gila offers a no-pretense dining experience where the flavors and aroma of the food speak for themselves. There are a few white tables topped with flowers, a small wooden counter topped with containers of freshly baked rugalach, and behind it, a black chalkboard menu decorated by the art students from the school next door. When the small curtain behind the counter isn’t drawn, one can find Gila working fervently in the kitchen wearing Crocs. Her sister likes to poke fun at her for not being fashionable, to which Gila responds with an Israeli accent and distortion, “I’m not care.” Having to be on her feet nearly 7 days a week from 5am to 10pm, Crocs are the only logical choice. She lives only a couple blocks away because as she jokingly remarks, “I can’t waste time in traffic.”

Currently her son, Tomi, helps out with the operational side of things and when his siblings are around, they will also offer a hand. When asked why she hasn’t hired more help, she replied, “I’m afraid that one of my favorite customers will come in and I will not be there to cook for them.”

Gila will do anything to keep her customers happy. Before a catering event, when her delivery guy didn’t show up and no cabs were willing to drive with food in the back, she ran out into the middle of the street waving her arms frantically to stop traffic. She offered a man $50 dollars to drive the food up the street and together they loaded his car trunk and made it to the event on time.

On my birthday, my girlfriend, who was studying abroad at the time, called to see if they would have my favorite dishes prepared for breakfast. At 7am, just as I was getting out of bed to get ready for work, there was a mysterious knock at the door. At my entrance, I found Tomi sleepy-eyed and breathless. In his hands were plates of challah French toast, shakshuka and a pecan pie specially prepared by Gila that morning. These are just a few of the stories that make Gila and Tomi so special.

Gila’s deep brown eyes, dark hair, multicolored fabric headpiece, short stature and wide loving smile create a home-like sense of comfort. Student art hangs on the wall, as it would on the kitchen fridge. If she isn’t too busy in the kitchen, she will sit with you to learn about your life, offering advice where and when she can. I used to stop by in the mornings for coffee and somehow she had this telepathic sense of how I was feeling and always knew what to say. If you are looking for a girlfriend or boyfriend, she will keep a keen eye on a potential match for you. She actually managed to set my friend up.

An ardent believer in tradition, Gila was frustrated about working during Shabbat and decided to bring Shabbat to her. Going there on Fridays is reminiscent of the family dinners I have back home. For $25, she prepares a massive five-course feast. The tables in her restaurant are pushed together and covered with tablecloths, flowers and shiny silverware. The meal begins with a freshly baked challah and a short blessing. The huge challah is broken apart by hand and passed around the restaurant, still warm and steamy. A mix of traditional Israeli appetizers to nosh on — like hummus, shakshuka and grilled eggplant — accompany it. For the main course, she makes some delicious variation of chicken. She mixes flavors and spices from everywhere, describing the origins and inspiration of each dish as she brings them out. Once you have over-indulged, she tops the meal off with some warm Moroccan tea and Baklava.

At the first dinner she hosted, her eyes swelled with pride and joy as she recounted her large family dinners in Israel: “my mom would be so proud,” she said. Since opening nearly three years ago, Gila has managed to create a second family larger than her own, and a second home as special as the one I grew up in.

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