Goodbye Gorbals: Talking with Chef Ilan Hall about the Opening of Esh

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Ilan Hall maintains something of a public persona, as the spirited host of Esquire’s bracket-style cooking competition, Knife Fight, but he’s hardly the cocksure Top Chef winner that many of us remember. Nor is he only the purveyor of bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, “peas many ways,” Vidalia onion-studded brownies, and other highly conceptualized dishes, that all but defined his LA-to-Brooklyn transplant of the Gorbals.

Nowadays, since transforming his avant-gardish Williamsburg eatery into the relaxed Israeli barbecue spot, Esh, you’re most likely to find him hunched over his wood-fired grill, tending to za’atar spice-crusted pork ribs, whole knobs of celery root and eggplant, and schwarma-style lamb shoulder, tucked into toasted pitas with dribbles of spicy zhug. “At the end of the day we’re here to please people, not to say, you need to eat this or go fuck yourself,” Hall asserts. “There was a time when there was a lot of that going on at restaurants, and it just isn’t reasonable.”

We chatted with the newly, contently casual chef about his other major reasons for the change, as well as his tenuous connection to Urban Outfitters, and why, all of these years later, he’s actually perfectly happy to be just flipping burgers.

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Talk to me about your thought process behind transforming the Gorbals into Esh. What were some of the factors that precipitated it?
Basically I’m restless, and I feel like I need to change something every one or two years. I opened a restaurant in LA, which was great, and it gave us the opportunity to come here, which was great, and it seemed to make sense at the time to branch out the Gorbals brand. But it was a continuation of a concept that I had never really wanted in the first place. My original idea was to focus on Israeli flavors and nose-to-tail stuff, but for one reason or another, I never ended up doing it.

So the change stems more from your evolution as a chef then customer response to the Gorbals concept?
It’s a combination of things. I’m a businessman, of course; I understand if something isn’t working you have to change it. But I think this was more of an inspired decision. Our wood-fired grill has also ended up dictating how we’ve done things. When we opened the Gorbals we were using it, but we weren’t cherishing or taking full advantage of it, and it’s such a unique tool.

On your website, it describes your current concept as “Everyday Israeli BBQ.” Was emphasizing the “everyday” key here?
It was. A large part of our success in California was due to the fact that we were embraced by the neighborhood. It’s essential to serve the kind of dishes that will inspire people to come in on a Tuesday night for a meal. It’s difficult when you’re doing things that are experimental, people will be like; yeah, maybe I’ll check it out on a Friday or Saturday sometime. But our weekday business is our bread and butter. You have to capitalize on your neighborhood and give them what they want.

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The restaurant is rather uniquely situated above an Urban Outfitters store. Do you feel like it’s colored people’s perception of you, that you’re actually a corporate entity somehow tied to them? Do you think that partnership has made it easier or more difficult for people to find you, then if you were just a standalone restaurant?
Yeah, people frequently think we’re connected. And I just tell them that they’re our landlord, nothing more or less. As for whether or not there have been difficulties discovering us, I’m not sure. We had a similar challenge in LA; we were off the street inside of a low-income housing building. It was difficult to figure out that there was anything going on in there; we were  kind of a not-on-purpose speakeasy. But then when people did find us, they were especially excited by it.

The Gorbals was described as Israel meets Scotland meets LA meets Brooklyn. With the Israeli part now firmly at the forefront, do any of those original, cross-cultural references still remain?
The fusion at the Gorbals really was natural to me; I grew up with both Israeli and Scottish ingredients in my fridge, and discovered true similarities between haggis and kishka. And even though I’m concentrating largely on Israeli flavor profiles now, I’m still all about looking at culinary traditions from a different point of view. Our pork ribs are a good example of that, which sort of nod to American barbecue. We crust them in two kinds of za’atar and slow cook them, before finishing them on the grill and topping them with a sort of deconstructed barbecue sauce, of lemon juice, sumac and date molasses. Our babaganoush is pretty unique too; instead of merely removing the insides from an eggplant that’s been roasted over a fire, we take the skins that have been charred to hell, mix them with olive oil and fold them in as well, so the baba is even more intense and smoky.

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Obviously as a chef, it’s important to push your own boundaries and be creative; in fact it’s necessary, if you want to stay excited and engaged. But is there a fine line you’ve found yourself needing to toe, between artistically inspiring yourself and potentially alienating your customers?
I think that’s a very delicate balance always. We experienced it in California as well; it’s anywhere you go and everything you do. You have to find a happy medium because the bottom line is, you have to make food that’s delicious, so people want to come in as much as possible. When we were the Gorbals, our food was very difficult to eat on the rooftop, which doesn’t make sense, because it’s an awesome rooftop. People want to eat ribs up there, or slosh a piece of pita through hummus. They want their food to be less precious. And that’s not to say our food doesn’t take a ton of technique. Go ahead and order the burger, because I think ours is pretty special; all of the condiments are made out of onions. I actually think burgers are really hard to make, and make great. There’s nothing less to what we’re doing on our end. We’re just ensuring that everything is a lot more accessible.

Esh: 98 N 6th Street, Williamsburg

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