Zest opened its doors on the Finchley Road in 2013, the ying to JW3’s yang, upmarket kosher food with a Middle East twist, which attracted rave reviews when the cultural complex opened.
Since those heady opening days, Zest has gone through various… convulsions. Many changes of menu, some sublime cooking and some hiccups – plus the decision, taken right at the start, to make Zest into a dairy restaurant, has meant it was not always a destination eating point as it was once hoped to be.
Last year, however, Zest spread its wings a little when, in partnership with World Jewish Relief, it ran an all-too-brief but very successful pop-up restaurant, Taste of Syria, in the piazza of JW3.
And for the first time people got some idea of what the kitchen could do with meat and poultry.
Now, perhaps inspired by this experience, and the “pop-up” vibe, Zest has opened an intriguing meat restaurant at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the heart of the City.
Bevis Marks has been the home to several restaurant ventures but, sadly, none of them has lasted.
Intelligently, Zest at Bevis Marks is taking it slowly and running its new restaurant according to the rhythms of the City – opening only at lunchtimes, because the City becomes a desert at night – and, more interestingly, offering its food via a Deliveroo service to hungry workers in the vicinity.
We went in the first week of service when it is usually unfair to judge any restaurant going through “soft opening” teething troubles – but, hand on heart, Zest at Bevis Marks passed with flying colours.
JW3 Zest customers might recognise some of the furniture in the bright open space that adjoins Bevis Marks Synagogue itself, with an angled glassed-in roof shedding maximum light on the diners.
There was, as yet, no alcohol licence, although that did not deter many of the obvious City workers attacking their lunch with determination. Perhaps it will only be the restaurant’s other clientele, tourists, who will want a glass of something to go with their food.
Considering this is a supervised kosher restaurant, the prices are not sky-high if shomer costs are factored in.
The most expensive item on the menu is the £29 roasted rib-eye steak, which my companion pronounced really delicious. He asked – acknowledging the laws of kashrut – for his serving to be as rare as possible, and the kitchen duly obliged.
Let us say that it was just short of moving on the plate, and he was highly delighted.
We began with piquant starters – smoked salmon with caper vinaigrette and toasted sourdough for him (£8) – and mini lamb koftas with peanut salsa for me (£9).
The starters included a couple of interesting-sounding vegetarian numbers, such as carrot hummus or crushed avocado and lotus crisps, served with the ubiquitous sourdough, but there doesn’t seem much point to me in going to a kosher meat restaurant unless you are going to eat the meat.
While he was wolfing down the rib-eye, I decided on ras-el-hanout salt beef, (£19) which arrived with a potato and chive salad.
This was nothing like the Ashkenazi salt beef with which we are all so familiar: delicately marinaded and beautifully presented, it was a slow joy to eat. To be honest, we could have had just mains for lunch and skipped the starters, as the portions were more than generous, but we were both greedy and curious.
Just the same, neither of us had room for dessert, and at the moment there is only a choice of two: orange and almond cake, or chocolate mousse (both £6). I eyed the mousse being served to a couple behind us with disbelief; a huge portion and the diner eating it scraped every morsel out of the serving glass, almost rendering the vessel not worthwhile washing.
Some of the items on the menu seem better designed for lunch-at-a-desk — smoked mackerel challah sandwich, for example, with harissa aioli, apple slaw and grated roe (£9), or aubergine dumplings with couscous and fattoush salad (£14).
I am fascinated to know in what state the shakshuka (£9) arrives after its journey in a Deliveroo bag, as the dish should be piping hot. Maybe that’s something that is better eaten in.
At the moment, the plan is for Zest at Bevis Marks to open until Pesach and then reopen after, perhaps into the summer, if the venture is a success. I really hope it works, because there is nowhere kosher to eat in the City.
Currently it’s going to open Monday to Thursday, 11am until 3pm. The one day on which it could open, however, is Sunday, when tourists are around, and even London residents driving into Spitalfields or Columbia Road Flower Market wouldn’t have far to go for a different kind of kosher dining experience.
For me, Zest at Bevis Marks is definitely destination eating.
Zest, Bevis Marks Synagogue, London EC3, is open Mondays to Thursdays, 11am to 3pm. Bookings: 020 7433 8955.