Alternate title: L is for Levant or, This Entry is a Total Cheat.
Two years on and I’ve reached the letter L. What I did not want to do for this post: Latvian food: meat, fish, boiled potatoes, potatoes boiled then fried. Lithuanian food: potatoes boiled then fried. It’s post-Christmas, and I’m looking for something light and healthy to eat – barking up the wrong tree here, no offense to either my Latvian or Lithuanian friends (I do have both of these). Liberian food – I’m not even sure that’s a thing. I briefly contemplated covering Lebanon by going mad clubbing and getting a kebab on the way home, but really, I didn’t want to do that either. I go to bed at 10.
What I did want to do was try The Palomar, a new entrant in London’s modern Jewish food scene.
The Levant is a historical designation for a geographic area covering both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, a.k.a the Middle East. This includes countries such as Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Turkey, among others. Considering the likelihood of me readily locating a Jordanian and/or a Syrian restaurant in London, I thought it worthwhile to attempt covering the region all in one go, and, at the risk of being mistaken for some kind of restaurant critic, ticking a hot spot I’ve been wanting to try off my list on a cold January night. And as Palomar means “Dovecote” in Spanish – a place of refuge for a traveler – I couldn’t help but think it was the perfect place to take solace from what has always otherwise been a nasty month.
Recently awarded the ‘I Love You, You’re Strange Award’ by Independent columnist Grace Dent in her round-up of London’s best restaurants of 2014, it took us nearly two months to get a table at a time where we actually wanted to eat.
And no wonder – when we arrived at 7 pm on a Wednesday night, we were escorted past first-come, first-serve counter seats (which were full) where joyful patrons watched chefs cook in a small open kitchen – to an even smaller dining room.
Now I may have waited yonks for a table but not everybody wants to do this, or has to. Counter-style eating has become the norm across London, from prominent sushi counters to American diners to oyster bars, and I quote Tim Hayward (who has bar none the coolest job/credentials in the world):
“Our requirements from public dining have changed. We have grown self-confident and no longer necessarily need the class-riddled fawning of traditional restaurants. Good food at reasonable prices is almost a given in the current restaurant market, so perhaps we’re looking for more. The theatre? The experiential element of being right on the edge of food preparation? Maybe [Ozersky] is right: maybe it’s the democratic buzz of being shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow diners and face to face with the cook.”
As reservations are not taken at the counter, this is your best bet if you want to try and snag dinner at The Palomar off the cuff.
The atmosphere in the dining room itself is intimate and friendly – i.e. you will be sitting very close to other people. To my left was a couple who I swore were famous, and to my right, a solo diner eating two desserts. Good start.
The concept here revolves around small dishes meant to share, inspired by a Sephardic style of cooking and based on recipes spread across the Jewish diaspora. Many familiar ingredients and flavours dot the menu – preserved lemon, cardamom, sumac, dates, aubergine, couscous and latkes (yay!) all feature, in various incarnations.
We started with the cocktail list. Does this approach to eating mean we order five cocktails and share those too? I asked.
Since this was probably a bit excessive for a school night, I chose the ‘Garden of Eden’ – extra dry rum with elderflower cordial, velvet falernum (what this means is beyond me), lime juice, maraschino and grapefruit bitters.
This was truly biblical, which explains why our celebrity friends to the left had them coming at very regular intervals.
The waitress came to take our order, advising us of the nightly special: brain, coated in paprika breadcrumbs with confit garlic and chickpeas. She said this as if it was nothing: you know, brain. We both had some questions.
Q: What kind of brain is it?
A: “Pork, and it’s bloody lovely.”
Q: How many brains have you sold tonight?
A: “I’ve sold one in the restaurant, but it’s a very popular dish at the bar.” Still not sold.
We decided on four more standard dishes to share – the shakshukit, a deconstructed kebab with minced meat, yogurt and tahini; the octopus steak with cherry tomato confit and houmous; the morning glory and tenderstem broccoli with fried glass noodles, cumin, cashew and basil lime vinagraitte and my favourite, the butternut squash risotto with mangetout, pine nuts and parmesan labneh foam.
With some bread to start, of course – I was excited to try their challah bread, having recently tried my cousin Jennifer’s homemade version.
“Tonight we also have a kubaneh – a soft, pot-baked buttery bread of Yemeni origin, served with tahini and grilled tomatoes,” the waitress intercepted, lest I order something as run-of-the-mill as my favourite braided egg bread. Alas, she had me at butter – a modern manna from heaven.
The verdict – as with the reviews of the restaurant I’d read beforehand, our views were mixed. On the night, we both really enjoyed the food, the atmosphere and the unpretentious service. Looking back on the meal, my husband found the food to be very good, but average, while I remember it as being very creative (top marks for presentation) and very tasty, with unusual blends of flavour. The labneh foam was definitely memorable – it sounds pretty inconspicuous (labneh is basically strained greek yogurt) but a good example of what this restaurant stands for – solid, unassuming Middle Eastern food, prepared with care. A good choice for a date, a business lunch, or a quick pre-theatre bite. Next time I’ll sit at the bar!
Need to know:
34 Rupert Street, W1D 6DN
020 7439 8777
Nearest tube: Picadilly Circus