Persian oxtail stew from the Palomar Persian oxtail stew from the Palomar Persian oxtail stew from the Palomar in London. (Photo: Courtesy of The Palomar)

New eateries heat up the streets of London

Food scene in England's capital brings a new approach to Mediterranean cuisine.

A new crop of Israeli-style restaurants in London – The Palomar, Gail’s Kitchen and Honey & Co. – is sending tongues wagging, critics raving and diners clamoring for tables.

Like most big cities, food trends in London come and go as quickly as a teenage fad. Some are merely apparitions, the result of PR and media bluster. The rise of Israeli food, though, is most definitely real. The evidence is solid, in the kitchens and on the menus.

The movement in London mirrors a similar trend in the U.S. Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia, for example, recently received a James Beard Award – the gastronomic equivalent of an Oscar – while New York-based chef Einat Admony has been extolled for her Israel-influenced offerings.

And then there's Yotam Ottolenghi, the owner of four sensational London eateries that bear his name. He's now widely considered the global authority on Israeli cuisine.

“I’m positive that Ottolenghi is very central in this,” said food writer Janna Gur, when The Grapevine asked about the current trend. “His cookbook ‘Jerusalem’ was very instrumental in this respect.”

Yet the explosion of Israeli food in London wasn’t totally unexpected; it has been quietly simmering for a while, in places such as the formerly Israeli-run boutique bakery Baker & Spice, where Ottolenghi once worked as head pastry chef.

Shakshouka Gail's KitchenShakshouka from Gail's Kitchen in London (Photo: Courtesy of Gail's Kitchen)

While Israel’s wandering chefs have been undoubtedly influential, the food itself also has a massive part to play. “This is the way we want to eat today,” said Gur, author of "The Book of New Israeli Food." “Really good Israeli food boils down to vegetables in the end. Israelis have a very sexy way of treating them. They know how to spice them up. In other places, Britain included, vegetables are seen as a kind of punishment. In Israel, they are a celebration."

At the forefront of the London trend is the husband-and-wife team of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich. At Honey & Co., their small café in Bloomsbury, they embraced the complex flavors of their home country. “All the food here is just food that we really liked growing up,” Srulovich told The Grapevine. “Falafel, hummus, baba ganoush … and all these really flavorful, punchy preparations. We really missed them when we first came to this country and we’ve tried to recreate them.” Here, pita is baked daily and comes out hot and soft, and sweet cakes in the window make customers swoon. Meanwhile, vegetables are treated with the utmost care – sometimes boosted by spices, other times left to shine in simple dressings.

With produce so imperative to Israeli food, one suspects it might suffer in a climate like London's. But, as Srulovich explained, quality produce can be imported directly from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. At Honey & Co., the team is constantly searching for the perfect produce. “It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding,” said Srulovich. “When you track something down and you say, yes, that’s the flavor I’m looking for. It’s very gratifying.”

Honey & Co. cinnamon bunsCinnamon buns and other pastries at Honey & Co. in London. (Photo: Courtesy of Honey & Co.)

Over at The Palomar in Soho, London, the chefs behind Jerusalem’s Machneyuda restaurant take an inspiring and modern approach to Mediterranean flavors, celebrating the overlapping influences that meet in Jerusalem. Diners and critics have embraced the food, which includes dishes such as pork belly tajine with ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice blend), dried apricots and Israeli couscous, and tahini ice cream with cardamom créme Anglaise, brûlée figs, filo delight and honey. Owner Layo Paskin described it as “home cooking elevated to a professional standard with imagination and flair. So you get the comfort of the cooking but also much more, and I think this will always appeal with any great cuisine. And Londoners are fantastic at embracing the new – it’s part of what makes it such a fantastic city.”

London’s Israeli restaurants are not all proponents of homestyle cooking. Some establishments are taking a different approach. Israeli-born Oren Goldfeld, who cut his teeth in Ottolenghi’s kitchen, is now head chef at Restaurant 1701, where Israeli specialties are given the fine dining treatment. For example, the Jerusalem mixed grill (usually a messy plate or pita full of heavily seasoned and grilled meat scraps, offal and onions) is repurposed. In Restaurant 1701, an artful rendition sees hanger steak served up alongside sweetbreads, gizzards, fried onions and pickled gherkins, finished with a dollop of creamy tahini.

For home cooks tackling Israeli recipes, there's an increasing amount of available resources, including Gur’s cookbook, but getting the right ingredients can make all the difference. “It’s simple food, but it does require a little bit more care, especially with ingredients,” said Srulovich. “You need to find the good stuff, particularly vegetables. These things don’t carry their flavor for long, so you need to find the fresh stuff. That is 90 percent of your work done.”

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