Haim Shweky
Haim Shweky

House on a Hill: HOC in TLV

"HOC" as in "rock," or you may choose to enunciate the letters singly, as in rap.

“You mean…Coffeehouse?

Not at all. This is House of Coffee. And–if we accept the slightly awkward syntax–one can believe the name was conceived to deliver more than just an extra word.

At makeup level, the simple transposition is a sweatless way of distinguishing one’s brick from the generic wall (or, what is perhaps better, one’s bean from the batch). At the level where we begin to discern pores, the similar-yet-not name is a deft way of conveying to the customer a keener message: Coffee done proper impels recognition of the delicate distinction.

The deliberate rearrangement of words in circuitous fashion can also be read as both a repudiation and a slight against those of the “eh, What difference does it make, really?” the “psh, What does it matter in the end?” and the “ah, Who cares?”

What appears at first, then, to be a tepid and somewhat syrupy name for a café, is revealed with rumination to be quite the crisp and salty injunction. HOC rejects, from register to receipt, the sluggish postures and attitudes of amateurism, and the mentality of good-enoughness which underwrites and propels it—but we are not quite at the table yet.

Here outside, then, on the corner of HaTover St., is a minimalist oblong structure with hoof-to-roof glass front windows. A filigree of sunburst unspools itself off the windowpanes in the TLV kagerou. On the other side of them is a monolithic concrete barista counter, into which is carved the café’s insignia (häk? həʊk? eɪʧ əʊ si?), like an Egyptian hieroglyph in stele.

Here is a Capitol Hill of Spring of coffee, nicely positioned between the Caramel Market exit and the Neve Tzedek entrance, but blessedly islanded from the touristic currents of either. We perceive that it’s cut off from the mainstream in more ways than the merely geographical. No passerby or stray marketgoer will pass without inquiry into its name. In the answer is the suggestion of something different, atypical, not generic; distinct. In three quick words, HOC manages to convey the distinction with a difference.

Coffeehouse…house of… No, not really the same thing at all.

***

An impromptu haiku: ‘Extraction’

Essence of the bean;

To pour a cup of coffee:

Essence of the man.

Arigato goyzamas. HOC will not immediately impress the idea of Japan upon customers unfamiliar with that country, or for whom the Pacific island remains a remote gallery of geishas, tea ceremonies, sushi, sumos and samurais, cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums, a photogenic mountain, and so forth, all dimly cast under a red rising sun. Nothing in the way of washi paper lanterns, kakemono, or origami napery will lead the customer to the oriental conclusion.

But sever your gaze from the meretricious Māyā of the phone’s illumination, take an optical breath, and—

Notice: the wabi-sabi decour, which forgoes the blitz of glitz for the more staidly stated.

Observe: the giving and taking of money with both hands.

See: the glazed Hagi ware, the earthy Raku ware.

Regard: the Hasami porcelain chawan which encloses your food, and the bento box served sides.

Remark: the ornamental bonsai plant on the counter, and sake bottle on the shelf (also, regrettably, purely ornamental).

And with all this looking, you may just perceive.

“The first charm of Japan,” writes Lafcadio Hearn, “is intangible and volatile as a perfume.” It was while sojourning in Tokyo that Amir and Shiraz Reifer had “a cup of coffee that changed our lives,” and experienced firsthand the verity of the great travel writer’s words. Something of this “first charm” they sought to retain to the last. Returning to Tel Aviv, the blueprints for the House were already drafted.

***

Fridays, like elsewhere, percolate with activity

The line undrawn

“It is our passion to share with you bright cups.”

“Bright” is the mot juste. In an enlightening and vaunted 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows,” author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki shows to what illuminating use the Japanese eye makes of darkness. HOC, however, is an aquarium of light and brightness, and the entrant is whelmed in a flood of it.

This House was risen, not built. Light and shade and air are the draftsmen of this construction. Empty space as a sacred substance is a conception fundamental to Zen, and blocks of the stuff are here most tastefully arranged. Like a Zen monk’s painting, most of the page is left bare. Each drawn line has its place, for without it the illustration would be incomplete; and each line undrawn is absent because, to be with it, the illustration would be burdened by unessential addendum. No extraneous brushstrokes, no superfluity of colour: only the vital remain.

(Less can be more–but it is sometimes less. Minimalistic seating–padless and backless–is also comfortless. Of course, I see how spartan seating is one trade tactic against those who would, so to speak, milk their lattes. But for the caff-fiend like myself, the second word of the compound coffeehouse holds more domestic a connotation, and I would this house were more homey, in that respect.)

Hoc applies this same philosophy of honesty of stroke to their “craft.” Coffee, for the monks of the HOC school, is their chosen Zen-in-the-art-of.

Per se, HOC is not selling a product more “expensive,” because what they sell is not at all the same product as what they at the coffeepot down the street sell. Though they are selling something very dear. La Cabra from DK; SEY from BK; Matchæologist from Uji, Kyoto. As well as a global selection of recherché teas.

HOC imports aesthetically from Japan, but their coffee they bring in from La Cabra coffee roasters in Denmark, as well as from SEY in BK, NY (whence I am also imported), and can thus claim specialty—not “special”, nota bene—status. Matcha, sampaned over from Kyoto, is likewise of ceremonial—mark well, that’s above premium—grade. (Which, I gather, makes it unmatchable.)

HOC’s and La Cabra’s “philosophy”–because every craft business must naturally have, not simply an approach, but a systemic Weltanschauung–is one of simplicity, honesty, brightness, origins, and quality. (Brightness is a word to which coffee crafters recur often.)

“Specialty” is not merely a term with meaning only to the pedant, more fussy than serious. Put up beside their coffee, the generic brands of your typical café will give you the unmistakable profile of cabinet dust, with overtones of cardboard and suggestions of chalk. After managing to get your tongue around ‘Red Catucai Natural Anaerobic Fermentation’, ‘Columbia X.O. Cognac natural’, or the industrial sounding ‘SL-28/32’, you might proceed by getting them around your tongue, and specialty coffee will explain itself.

***

The food menu extends itself in depth, not length. Egg Sandwich—Salad—Muesli. Written that way, no grammatical garnish. The sandwich—more aptly, The Sandwich—has become reason itself to pay a housecall (as it were) to HOC. A Japanese puffed omelet, folded and laid between cakelike slices of brioche, this sandwich is cashmere, almost diaphanous in its airiness. This nebular quality is put into even fluffier relief as Israelis are acculturated to something called chavita, curiously translated as “omelet,” but which resembles in fact not so much the delicate buttery French foldover as the sloughed-off skin of a desert snake.

Seasonality in play here: Japanese Ikebana, arranged for the desert; housemade vittles with spring fruits; a single annual harvest provides this coffee varietal.
Another ripe use of the season.
Yoga art makes thoughtful use of geometrical figures, the point where psyche and physics harmonize. The yantra, power-diagram, acts to stimulate concentration during dhyana, deep trancelike meditation. Edible yoga art, however, appears self-defeating.

Decadent, perhaps, but not sinful. Whatever yehud of food you be–whether hungry hymie, hedonic Hebrew, or sybaritic Sadducee–no need for existential fretting: HOC is certified O you.

There is another menu, an acoustic one, of which I am no less appreciative.

In this Middle East café

Based on a Far East conception,

Music is ta-

ken in a Westerly direction;

Which is to say,

Kanye.

But of course. Kan is himself a Rakan, an “enlightened one”—a Rakanye, you might say—a great cultivator of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, and notorious collector of artifacts in the style.

While songs coast from the Far East to the far out West, musical flights land also in that “flyover” country of artists you’ve never heard. This is best. Avoided is that monotonous middle of the bell curve, whose predictable tintinnabulations, with all the variety between Ding and Dong, can ring one’s patience. Many a fine trader in caffeine or alcohol has lost my patronage for this infringement on my audial maturity. Why (why, why) they insist on chewing even drier the bubblegum of pop is proof that acumen and originality in one artistic department does not necessarily or naturally transmit to another. Those with an enlightened register of, say, the visual or the literary, may prove indifferent (or what is surely worse, dull) in their pick of the musical. In matters of style and taste—whether gustatory, optical, or auricular—the members of HOC have good sense.

Embed from Getty Images

The Great Wave off Tel Aviv

The “fusion” of East and West is a jaded and fatiguing motif. Amir lends originality to the conception, fashioning sartorial patterns which you might call Tokyo chic. Typically he chooses a single colour palate, from song to sock. Upon this he mindfully sketches. His brushy, naturally marcelled hair is the shrub which supports the downside-up pot of a skullcap; enfolding his torso is a present-century kimono; his legs move lithely in linen, dun-coloured hakama; his kicks are too hip to be called “sneakers,” and a new pair of them seems to spring with the rerisen sun. The effect is meticulous, but not persnickety; he is dressed up only so as to be laid back. Like the shrine around him, everything seems suitably, consciously chosen, yet unconsciously executed, quite in keeping with the Zen style. (It may even be said that he doesn’t dress at all, but is rather the passive vehicle which is dressed.)

Where urban in dress, urbane in manner. Amir is an appreciator, and appreciates fellow appreciators, and shows them appreciation in turn. In the outpouring of his generosity, he is no cold brew.

Humour he has more than a sense of. What with the customer begins as a polite smile of convention can, during the brief moments of exchange with Amir at the register, nearly always be stretched outwards to a pitch of tautness, before falling in upon itself in an aspect of unselfconscious cackling.

“Ah, Mr Life. Always a pleasure, my friend.” Today, Amir is dressed full fig in orange. “What’ll it be today, good sir?”

“Matcha…”

“…yes.”

“Muesli…”

“…yes.”

“And an Americano.”

“Oh, no.” This last word drops down on a decrescendo of disappointment. He’s not the first bitchy barista to reject the Americano as a legitimate or respectable coffee order.

“It’s not. It’s disgusting. If I was a coffee Nazi as I should be, I would not sell Americano.” A coffee kamikaze, then.

Pour-over/ Aeropress, straight into the mug. No milk. Sugar, never.

Thus we arrive at that cultivated distaste for the second-rate alluded to in the intro. An eye exacting is only open; an eye not scrutinizing is but closed. HOC is a 7.30-18.00 (Fridays, 14.00) affront against mediocrity and the psychology which sanctions it.

Amir is as discriminatory in his pick of product as he is discerning in his selection of those who handle it, a fact given daily proof by Lior, Tamar (a veritable Onna-bugeisha), Yan, Roman, Omri, Dana, Ron, and Aviv—the matchless and unflummoxable front team—as well the kitchen crew, those concealed but here-sung rowers of the spatula (Lina, Reuven, Jonathan, Taisiia), and Project Manager (they have, by the way, a project manager), Alexandra. Notice the names. You can say good morning here in at least seven languages. Their tongues are as diverse as the individual stories to which they give wag, but in the tacit language of their passion for what is done here, they speak as one.

***

That the position in which he finds himself is both distinctive and distinguished Amir is no doubt aware, exhibiting as he does the ease of existence of one who’s burden of proof is behind him. Others know it, too. Mention made of HOC at once arouses the respect, not untarnished with the compliment of deferential envy, of fellow coffeeshop owners.

He had the vision, but more importantly he had the nerve, to introduce to a nescient Israeli public a product they might not in the end understand, and then had the chutzpah to charge them for the pleasure. This takes a not trifling amount of moxie.

(Per se, Amir is not selling a product more “expensive”, because what he sells is not at all the same product as what they at the coffeepot down the street sell. Though he is selling something very dear. As an imported product myself, and marked with the specialty stamp, I feel encouraged whenever I see in Israel a queue lining up for the purchase of foreign couture, however belated its arrival.)

Other boutique coffeeshop owners, the “realistic” and “pragmatic” ones, essaying to balance between the not-overmuch-refined and the not-too-generic (that is, to solve the insuperable question of how to peddle caviar to proles), would certainly love to sell upscale product to a grateful cliental eager to pay the prices requisite to keep business lucrative. If only. Some day.

Amir has skipped this mental stage of “if only” and “someday”, opting rather for “why not” and “no day like today.” In the process he’s legitimized many an insipid maxim to dream-chasing. And he has incurred as a result the amicable resentment of all in the industry.

Now if only we can get good beer in Israel. Some day.

***

When Amir measures 16 gm of ground coffee to 220 ml specially treated water; clocks 3.30 precise minutes (any less, too sweet; more, too bitter); divides the water and the time into four concentric pours—a 40 second “bloom”, another two pours, then a cross in the coffee bed, before pouring the last of the water—there are two types of extraction occurring here at once.

It’s conventional in admiring treatises on Japan to mention, in tones of almost pious adoration, the qualities of simplicity, subdued grace, veneration for nature, “understated elegance,” etc. The esoteric (airy) mantra can be expected to reappear often, and in illimitable variation: In Everything, Nothing; in Nothing, Everything. Almost mechanically, one begins vocalizing (it cannot very well be called speaking) such paradoxes oneself, sounding very enigmatical indeed to the uninitiated. This is somewhat infantile, as well as infantilizing, and I had hoped to avoid this. Nonetheless, the foregoing recipe is not a mere list of measurements and procedures for getting the best cup of coffee, though it is also that. If we are “touched with the divine,” the objects of our own creation are touched with the human. Amir, going through the bodily motions, is fashioning spiritual maneuvres, in an attempt to extract the eternal from the diurnal, thus making the dated and fated objects around us somewhat more deserving of their irreplaceable, invaluable moment. (In the words of Rev. West, “I know god breathed on this.”) This house, then, is more of a temple.

***

The coffee is without local compare, the food is fresh and good (or as Kanye puts it, mm mm mm mm mm), the music as fresh, the staff is applaudable, the seating austere and difficult, the décor zen, inspiriting, the atmosphere overall a pleasure. And the customer, that is you and I, he’s lucky and privileged to attend to it all.

‘Anaerobic Fermentation’ outside the gym? ‘Washed’ outside the laundromat? ‘Natural’ outside the greengrocer? ‘X.O’ beyond the label of a cognac bottle? ‘Infusion’ outside the laboratory?

Only the scholarly sort at home in the study, the man of science at home in the laboratory, or the savant at home in the fusty section of the library, can use such specialized lexicon coolly and colloquially. Amir Reifer is one such scholar. And the study, the laboratory, the library of coffee out of which he operates, is appropriately called his house.

 

About the Author
American by birth; Israeli by birthright. Jerusalemite by residence. By the year, enough of them. Haim, namely.
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