In this “On Foodable Side Dish,” Foodable video correspondent Agnes Chung takes us into Chef Ilan Hall’s new concept in Williamsburg, called Esh, a recent transition from his first New American restaurant, The Gorbals, which had locations in first L.A. and then New York. The “Top Chef” Season 2 winner switched to an Israeli barbecue slant, with “esh” fittingly translating to “fire” in Hebrew.
The Williamsburg restaurant sits on the third, rooftop floor of the building, located above an Urban Outfitters. This wasn’t coincidental. “I’ve had a good relationship with Urban Outfitters for a while,” says Esh. “We’ve done…some charity work together, I’ve done some events for them, and we just started talking once about consulting here, and then I said, ‘Oh, that’d be a great place for a restaurant.’” Less than a month later, the ideation and design was put into motion.
Of the re-concept from The Gorbals to Esh, Hall says, “We wanted to do food that was easier on the roof, and also I’ve had this thing inside of me for a while where, when we opened The Gorbals in L.A. for the first time, our food was…it was weirder, but it was way clearer as to what it was. It was a restaurant with Scottish and Israeli influences.”
Some of The Gorbals best dishes, he notes, were from the Israeli portion of the menu. Over time, he grew out of it, losing focus as to where the restaurant was going. “We have this wood-fire grill that we’ve had in here. It’s a beautiful grill and I feel like I wasn’t using it enough.”
Hall uses a lot of inspiration from his heritage — he’s part Scottish, part Jewish — when creating dishes for Esh’s menu. “A lot of the new dishes…have a lot of flavor profiles from Israel. They remind me of times of when I went to Israel when I was younger. I still have a lot of family there, so I go back pretty frequently and it’s nice to be able to try and represent that now.”
He admits the cuisine they’re dishing out at Esh is not exactly traditional, but rather Hall’s point of view on it.
So, what exactly is Israeli barbecue and how does it differ from American barbecue? “A lot of Israeli barbecue sort of focuses on live fire, cooking directly over it,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is give a taste of a little bit of both, where there’s certain things that we try and slow-smoke. We do a lot of cold smoking actually for some of our dishes. We’re taking a different approach. We’re not doing traditional barbecue on the Israeli side, we’re not doing traditional barbecue on the American side. We’re trying to take the best of both worlds and make it into something that’s delicious.”
In this episode, Hall shows us how to make Esh’s za’atar-crusted pork ribs. Seasoned with salt, the ribs are cooked overnight in a steam oven at 165-degrees for roughly 12 hours. “It breaks it down but doesn’t overcook it; it keeps a lot of the juice inside the rib,” notes Hall. Then, the product is sealed tightly so nothing can escape. After, it’s seasoned with two different types of za’atar, put in the oven for 7-8 minutes, put face-down on the grill for another 7-8 minutes, and doused with a lot of lemon juice. “Lemon and smoke — such a great combination together.” Date molasses is then drizzled on as a sweetener.
Once known for his unconventional twists on dishes (like matzo balls wrapped in bacon at The Gorbals), Hall says, at Esh, these “twists” can be found in the preparation itself. “I feel like my cooking has matured a little bit,” he says. “When you’re younger, you want to be crazy and you want to make your mark and you want to put as many things on a plate as possible, and really make it wild. But sometimes you need to really scale back to refine in its flavor and just really sort of clean and more developed.”