The Rise Of Israeli Food In London
Clockwise from top: tea-smoked aubergine, beef and onion, crushed potatoes, burrata and quince. Photograph courtesy of Bala Baya
The new food trend taking the capital by storm.
The vibrancy of the Israeli dining scene in London at the moment gives an authentic insight into eating out in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Populated by a mosaic of immigrant communities, the tiny nation gives curious chefs the chance to learn from dozens of inherent and adopted traditions. Yet regardless of any given dish’s, or chef’s, provenance, the universal ingredient in these kitchens is a willingness to disregard conventions in pursuit of heightened enjoyment.
And this ambitious, omnivorous and, above all, convivial spirit is becoming increasingly palpable in London. In the 15 years since Mr Yotam Ottolenghi and Mr Sami Tamimi first turned Brits on to the Levant’s remarkable bounty, heady blends of Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean flavours have also been plated up at the likes of The Palomar, Berber & Q, Honey & Co. and The Good Egg – the latter trio the handiwork of ex-Ottolenghi chefs: Mr Josh Katz; Mr Itamar Srulovich and Ms Sarit Packer, and Mr Oded Mizrachi respectively. In their vein, further openings have followed such as Schwarma Bar from Berber and Q; The Barbary, a sibling to The Palomar; and Bala Baya by Mr Tamimi-acolyte, Mr Eran Tibi. And now, with Mr Nick Balfe of Brixton’s Salon hosting Tel Aviv-inspired “Shalom” pop-ups; Israeli chef Mr Oded Oren, who won plaudits for his Louie Louie residency, and The River Café’s Ms Shuli Wimer, who showed considerable skill at Carousel this summer, making plans for solo ventures – well, it’s assured that we’ll soon be more acquainted with contemporary Israeli hospitality than ever.
Goat shawarma at Shalom at Salon. Photograph courtesy of Salon
“The tagline that I use is a North American deli in Tel Aviv,” says Mr Mizrachi of The Good Egg. “That mix of Hassidic elements: smoked meat and fish, but also vibrant vegetables, and a little noise so it’s not sterile. I take the food that I used to eat at my grandparents’ and tighten the recipes.” And as well as taking casual inspiration from the dynamism of feted establishments such as Orna and Ella, Hotel Montefiore and CoffeeBar, he’s swift to pay dues to the many single offering stalls that dot Tel Aviv’s markets: “these places specialise in felafel, or one other dish, for 20-30 years, so they perfect their product via time rather than logic – they don’t try to expand, just do their thing exceptionally well.”
“I like to cross-fade [between day and night]. At dinner, we serve [elevated] pitta dishes such as warm houmous with oxtail, alongside ceviche with Yemenite dressing, and a Syrian short rib and scorched vegetable pasta dish,” says Tel Aviv-raised Mr Eran Tibi of Bala Baya’s menu. “I was homesick after 10 years here, but London shaped me, and I realised it needed this [Tel Avivian] combined dining and entertainment experience. We want people to feel like they’re on holiday.” Israelis’ relaxed attitude to dining out also stuck with Salon’s Mr Nick Balfe following repeat visits to the country. “It’s similar to how [the British] go to the pub to socialise. It’s an excuse to hang out and more about people enjoying themselves than investors’ bottom lines.”
Yemeni pot-baked Kubaneh bread with tahini and velvet tomatoes. Photograph by Ms Helen Cathcart, courtesy of The Palomar
“Some people put an Israeli ‘stamp’ [on our spaces], but that removes all the Arabic influences,” says Mr Layo Paskin, co-founder of The Palomar and The Barbary, both opened in partnership with Mr Assaf Granit of Jerusalem’s acclaimed Machneyuda group. “Our food is expressive of modern day Jerusalem: Arabs, Jews and Christians have all called it home – that’s all in the melting pot.” As well as drawing upon that 5,000-year-old city’s culinary landscape, Mr Paskin and his team’s research trips have seen them traverse Moorish Spain and North Africa. “These journeys are fun, but also educational as you realise the vast scope of these cuisines’ heritages, as well as uncovering over-looked vegetables and the lost tastes of mass-produced spices.” The astonishing array of produce available year-round in Israel and chefs’ ensuing will to valorise vegetables at restaurants such as Tel Aviv favourite Port Sa’id, was of particular inspiration to Mr Balfe when plotting Shalom. “It allows Eyal Shani [of Port Sa’id, Miznon, and other runaway hits] to put vegetables at the forefront [of his creations], and that really resonated. We serve street food, but with an emphasis on vegetables, as that’s still lacking in that world.”
Raised in a small village on the border with Lebanon, The River Café’s Ms Wimer grew up among olive groves and vineyards. “It’s a bit like the Tuscany of Israel, what with the wine, figs, wild herbs and greens – except surrounded by Arab villages, by people from Lebanon and Syria, so the food was mainly Arab, specifically Lebanese, rather than Palestinian.” Although still honing her style, what is certain is that The River Café has only boosted her love of making the most of fine produce. “[Working here] didn’t change my way of cooking, but it made me confident with simplicity – letting ingredients shine.” And she’s adamant that Israeli enthusiasm – “I love the celebratory attitude towards food” – and an open kitchen will be foundational to her future space: “Dining rooms aren’t separate from kitchens [in homes] there, so you have constant contact between the cook and those eating.”
Aubergine mess. Photograph courtesy of Bala Baya
Interaction between diners and chefs is also central to the plans of Mr Oded Oren (of Louie Louie) and his forthcoming restaurant, “I would love to offer that loose [Tel Avivian] vibe of sitting around the bar, communicating with the staff here. I want people to be treated with generosity and warmth.” His dishes are informed by a mishmash of influences, too. “I focus on one main ingredient, whether fish or vegetable, and let it speak for itself. Olive oil is my main spice. My food stems from deep Israeli roots, but also from travelling the Mediterranean coastline. You could say it’s ‘new Israeli’.” And so happily it seems that London’s epicurean map will soon be enlivened via the exhilarating tastes and communal essence at the heart of modern Israeli dining.