“My beautiful, amazing, fantastic grandmother is my favourite human being I’ve ever known,” Avner’s owner Ed Halmagyi, the chef best known for his 20-year stint as Fast Ed on TV’s Better Homes and Gardens, tells Broadsheet. “But she was the single worst cook I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

Regardless, she left Halmagyi a set of recipes from an old notebook that he thinks was written by his great-great grandmother (who presumably was a good cook). It includes the basis for the Transylvanian rye bread he sells at Avner’s, his just-opened bagel shop and bakery in Surry Hills.

“The problem is that in the 19th century people didn’t write a cookbook by saying ‘Take 400 grams of flour and put it in a bowl’,” Halmagyi says. “Instead, they wrote things like, ‘Look for mother’s favourite cup and fill it almost all the way to the top with the flour you made last week, except if it’s been raining.”

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“And people might say, ‘That’s not a recipe’ and it’s like – no, that’s exactly what a recipe is.”

Aside from leaving some recipes to decipher, Halmagyi’s grandmother was also the one who taught him about his Hungarian-Jewish family and culture. This heritage can be seen throughout the shop and its products (as well as the name: Avner is Halmagyi’s Hebrew name). Although Halmagyi (and the bulk of the Avner’s menu) is Ashkenazi Jewish, he wanted to ensure that elements from the other two major Jewish subdivisions – Sephardi and Mizrahi – were represented.

“They’re three different culinary traditions, and all of them are represented in what we’re doing – I think that’s very important,” he says. “There’s nothing new about any of this. I’m just paying homage to the incredible Jewish chefs and cooks that have gone before me.”

And, truly keeping things old school, Halmagyi's starting with bagels made in the traditional, slow-fermented way from a pre-1950s time when commercial baking yeast wasn’t widely available. Avner’s bagel dough is fermented for three days before it’s torn up into rings, tossed into water with a sweetener and caustic soda (the sugar adheres the seeds and other toppings to the dough; the alkali provides the bagel’s textbook chew and pretzel-like dark crust).

You can buy these bagels on their own, with things like chocolate or date and orange blossom baked in, or you can get them sandwich style. Options include house-smoked pastrami and sabich (a happy mix of pickles, egg and eggplant) – but the bestseller by far is the lox.

“We knew that was going to be the case,” Halmagyi says. “And I’m delighted that people are enjoying it.”

Other highlights on the menu include a chocolate babka (and a less traditional ube and date babka), as well as a small rotating range of smaller treats, such as rugelach (a croissant-coded filled pastry) and babka bites.

But Halmagyi’s personal favourite is the challah, baked on Fridays in time for shabbat. The braided bread comes in two styles: plain and a slightly sweeter vanilla-and-turmeric option.

“Making this and knowing that people are going to be going home, using our bread to celebrate with their family, that means a lot to me,” Halmagyi says. “That makes me smile.”

Avner’s
370/372 Bourke Street, Surry Hills

Hours:
Tue to Sun 6am–3pm

avners.com.au
@avnersbakery