Hear the phrase ‘Israeli chefs’ and who do you think of? Yotam Ottolenghi? Those guys at Honey & Co? Or is it ‘that one who started the Palomar’? It’s likely, but there are many more.
The influx of exciting new Israeli restaurants opening these past few years accounts for the arrival of the staff chefs on our shores and some are great personalities.
Israeli food is not a thing as such, says Or Vaizer, who together with his friend Lee Penn established shakshuka haven Café Loren in Camden two years ago. “What we think of as Israeli food comes from all over the world, from people all over the world who settled in Israel,” he explains. “Falafel originates from Egypt, shakshuka from Morocco, lots of dishes have their roots in eastern Europe and the spices we use come from all corners of the globe.”
Vaizer describes the fare at Café Loren as Mediterranean, and they opened it to fill a gap for this type of cooking in Camden.
“Before Café Loren, there was no Mediterranean food in the market,” he says. “In Hendon, Golders Green and other Jewish areas, yes, but we wanted to bring this experience to a wider audience.”
Vaizer is vegetarian, which is possibly why perfecting the shakshuka became his life’s mission. His is made with fresh rather than tinned tomatoes, and you can really taste the difference. It’s also mopped up with challah rolls rather than pita. “I will be in Israel with my family for Rosh Hashanah this year and I’m already planning lots of really inventive vegetarian dishes. Lentil stew is a favourite,” he says.
Earlier this year, Vaizer and Penn opened Hummus Lina, also in the Stables market. This is ostensibly a takeaway stall, with amazing homemade hummus piled with sumptuous toppings.
“There is more and more Mediterranean food in the market now,” says Vaizer. “I think we started a trend.”
Indeed he may be right. Earlier this year brothers-in-law Tomer Niv and Alon Shamir opened Mediterranean grill Zala in Camden Market.
Niv is a well-known chef in Israel, and worked at the celebrated Rama’s Kitchen in Jerusalem before it was destroyed in a fire last year.
The chef at Zala is Greek and has put his stamp on the menu, resulting in meze, Levantine pizzas and gorgeous grilled dishes. The place has a Tel Aviv vibe, with simple but quirky décor and seriously flavoursome food.
The most exciting new opening in this field is Delicatessen, the ‘kosher Ottolenghi’ in Fairfax Road, although chef Or Golan is at pains to stress that in his view the menu isn’t Ottolenghiesque. It might seem an interesting location for a kosher restaurant, but Golan says he saw potential for kosher food in the Swiss Cottage/Maida Vale/St John’s Wood area.
Golan trained under Ottolenghi and says that Head Room café, which he opened in Golders Green last year, is indeed in that style, with a counter groaning with colourful salads and mouth-watering pastries. “It’s natural for me to do this type of food,” he says. “Growing up in Israel, vegetables and fresh food are in my blood. People love it and I love cooking it for them.”
Delicatessen sprang out of Golan’s desire to provide food that he loves to eat on Shabbat. It was originally destined to be a takeout (hence the name) providing food for Shabbat and Yom Tov, but then he decided to utilise the space and open a restaurant as well.
It was a gamble that paid off – almost straight away they were fully booked every night. It’s been a busy year for Golan, who is involved with Soyo as well as Head Room and Delicatessen. “I will atone on Yom Kippur for all the times I’ve shouted at my staff!” he says.
Golan agrees with Vaizer’s view that Israeli food is a melting pot of different cuisines.
“We always try to mix thing up and find solutions to problems, and this is reflected in the way we cook,” he says.
Eran Tibi, who recently opened Bala Baya in Southwark, which he calls
a poem to Tel Aviv, agrees.
“The essence of Israeli food comes from its soul, from generations of different cultures from the Middle East to Europe who picked the best of each dish and added their own twist.”
Then there is Amir Chen, who owns Strut and Cluck on East London’s increasingly desirable Commercial Street, says that in an Israeli restaurant there are no limits, no borders – everything is possible. “The food is so appealing,” he says. “It’s colourful, light and full of flavour. It’s how we eat at home.”
Uri Dinay, founder of falafel favourite Pilpel and the healthy Mediterranean take away Badolina, brought Israeli food to London to keep his grandfather’s legacy alive, “I learnt everything I know about falafel from working at my grandpa’s falafel stand in Israel from the age of 14. When he wanted to retire I made it my mission to make him a legend,” he says.
Pilpel was born in 2009 and so Dinay’s Israeli grandfather’s legacy lives on in London.
It’s in very good company.