Restaurants where you can sit at a counter and interact with the chefs are becoming increasingly popular in London. They can be very good.
But what happens when those seats are occupied and you are squeezed into a small table at the back? You bump elbows with diners whose conversations you tune into while losing the will to try to pick out the words of the person you’re with.
It’s miserable, and that’s why the Palomar passed me by after it opened a year ago. I went along when this small Soho venue made its debut, serving the food of modern-day Jerusalem. Its website boasted “a menu influenced by the rich cultures of Southern Spain, North Africa and the Levant.’’
I was shoehorned into a table so small there was barely room for the dishes. The wine and water were tantalizingly out of reach, while music close to 90 decibels (“very noisy, nerve damage’’ warned my decibel counter) added to the discomfort.
And then Palomar won Best Restaurant in the GQ Food & Drink Awards on April 28: “The Palomar has without a doubt the most chutzpah of any food and drink establishment operating in the country right now,’’ GQ said, with more hyperbole than punctuation.
A few days later, Palomar was named Tatler Restaurant of the Year.
What had I missed? I returned, sat out back, and decided the world was going mad. The best I could say was that the service was attentive and the food was “tasty.’’ That’s a catch-all word I would normally avoid but it summed up the punchy flavors.
Based on that meal, I would name Palomar the Best Restaurant That Opened on Rupert Street Last Year Serving the Food of Modern Day Jerusalem With a Menu Influenced by the Rich Cultures of Southern Spain, North Africa, and the Levant.
A few days later, I was back again, this time sitting at the 16-seat zinc kitchen bar, directly in front of chef Yossi Elad, who is known as Papi. He greeted me (and other diners) warmly. He engaged with his young brigade—mostly women when I visited—offering help, advice, and encouragement.
“The chef isn’t always right,” he said cheerfully, adjusting the garnish on one plate. “But he’s always the chef.”
If you praised a dish, he looked like he might cry with joy. If you didn’t clear your plate, you felt the need to apologize. He was like a favorite uncle who was also a great cook.
And then I realized something had happened. All the food was tasting better, starting with the kubaneh Yemeni pot-baked bread, which is soft and pillowy. It comes with smoky tahini and the sweetest blitzed tomatoes for dipping. The last time I enjoyed bread so much was at Kitty Fisher’s.
Shakshukit was the standout dish for me. It’s a “deconstructed kebab” of minced beef and lamb topped with tahini, harissa, pesto, and tapenade. (The recipe appears in Olive magazine.)
The pita bread—straight from the Josper grill—is on the side, so you can scoop up the meat. The big flavors are balanced only in so much as they trade punches, competing with each other for your attention and your pleasure.
(I’m generally against the gimmickry of deconstruction. If I were interested in chefs seeking attention for attention’s sake, I’d watch a Gordon Ramsay show.)
The beetroot carpaccio looks gorgeous and features the sweetest of beets, offset by burnt goat’s cheese and sprinkled with hazelnuts and date-and-honey syrup. It’s fresh and tangy, and I might order it again if I hadn’t hated beetroot all my life.
Corn-fed chicken comes two ways: fried in a buttermilk crust and “stroganoffed,” with mixed spice, that comes with tenderstem broccoli and freekeh. You know what freekeh is, right? Of course you do. It’s young green wheat that has been toasted and cracked. (Thank you www.vegetarian.about.com.)
Isn’t that the way? You learn how to pronounce quinoa correctly, and then a new cereal comes along.
This dish is two treats in one--what I would call JFC (Jerusalem fried chicken), with a great crunch, served atop a contrasting creamy, mushy bowl of comfort food your mother might give you if only she knew how to cook.
Other options include a sticky pork belly tajine with ras el hanout (North African spice mix) with dried apricots and Israeli couscous. This is smoky and fatty and fruity all at once.
There are four desserts, including knafeh. (That’s kataifi and goat’s cheese pastry, whipped cream, and pulverized pistachios). This isn’t too sweet or too rich. It is well-balanced and light enough to enjoy after a relatively heavy meal.
I’d have liked to see more Israeli wines on the list. But having splashed out 60 pounds ($92.39) on Chardonnay Har’el Clos De Gat ‘11, I am reconsidering. For that money, I expected more. Several wines are available by the glass and the carafe. That’s a better bet than buying a bottle that might be out of reach.
Palomar was created with the help of chefs Assaf Granit and Uri Navon, as well as Elad, from Jerusalem’s Machneyuda restaurant. The prices are reasonable: 5 pounds for bread; 10.50 for Shakshukit; 14 pounds for chicken.
It is four years since a restaurant called Quince opened amid much publicity, with the promise of bringing the authentic flavors of the eastern Mediterranean to London. It never caught on and is now long gone. Palomar succeeds where Quince failed. It may even be a game changer, bringing in its wake copycat casual venues serving this sort of food.
It’s not the best restaurant in London. It’s not even the best in Soho. But it is very good—when you sit at the counter.
Palomar is at 34 Rupert Street, Soho, London, W1D 6DN; +44-20-7439-8777 or http://thepalomar.co.uk/.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.