Haimishe, the hot comfort food

We investigate why Jewish food is suddenly sexy.

By Victoria Prever, December 12, 2011
Deli West One's generously filled kosher salt beef sandwich

Deli West One's generously filled kosher salt beef sandwich

Katz's deli, Carnegie Deli, 2nd Avenue Deli. Who hasn't heard of them? New York has for years been delivering legendary Jewish food, sometimes immortalised in movies, in a way London has never really matched.

Food trends tend eventually to cross the pond, but for whatever reason, Jewish food has remained entrenched in London's north-western suburbs.

But recent activity in the city's restaurant scene may indicate that Ashkenazi cuisine - the frumpy, lumpy, greying aunt of the gourmet world - has become the next bright young thing.

In the last few weeks, social media networks have been awash with talk of new Jewish-style restaurant Mishkin's, the kosher Deli West One and pop-up kosher restaurant Kosher Roast.

Mishkin's, in Covent Garden, is owned by Russell Norman and Richard Beatty. The team's first four restaurants - Polpo and Polpetto (Venetian inspired) and da Polpo and Spuntino (New York/Italian) - are some of the trendiest eateries in central London.

So why Jewish food? Norman has looked to the Big Apple for inspiration. "I visit New York at least three or four times a year and I always eat in the delis there," he explains. "To me, Jewish food is comfort food, the food I eat when I need cheering up. When I open a restaurant I think about the sort of food I love to eat. It was the obvious choice. It was eating in some of the New York delis which weren't obviously branded Jewish that made me think you could take that as a starting point but still have fun with it. That really was the idea for Mishkin's - it's a place serving a kind of Jewish food but where a lot of drinking goes on in the evenings."

Tellingly, the only Jewish food he had eaten in London was salt beef bagels in Brick Lane. "When Tom [Olroyd, head chef for the restaurant group] and I went to research the food for Mishkin's we spent ages combing Whitechapel for Bloom's before someone told me it had closed years ago," he laughs.

Lox bagel at Mishkin's, the new Jewish-style restaurant in Covent Garden

Lox bagel at Mishkin's, the new Jewish-style restaurant in Covent Garden

Norman is not Jewish but had a Jewish great-great-great grandmother, whose picture is on a wall in the restaurant. He and Olroyd have developed their own spin on old Ashkenazi favourites. The menu, which is not kosher, includes oxtail cholent, chopped liver with shmaltzed radish, and Severn and Wye lox bagel with house shmear alongside macaroni and cheese, pork hot dog and a cheeseburger. Chicken soup comes with an oversized, light and surprisingly herby kneidl. "Tom and I have had the most fun creating this menu, so much so that Tom has chosen to stay in the kitchen at Mishkin's unlike at our other restaurants," he says.

Norman's success to date indicates he has his finger on the pulse when it comes to what people want to eat, even though he claims never to second-guess public taste. He has been quoted as saying that perhaps Jewish food is "the original austerity cuisine" and is an affordable comfort in these hard times.

Only a few days in and a mixed crowd of young Soho types, local businessmen, actors and musicians as well as some of the Jewish community are flocking. "Some of our guests are already calling us over and to tell us 'this is not how you do it'," he laughs.

Another restaurateur inspired by New York Jewish delis is Julia Lee of Marylebone's Deli West One. The ex-fashion buyer for Ralph Lauren has teamed up with her father and two "genuine New Yorkers" to fill what they felt was a gap in central London for a proper kosher New York deli.

"My mother is from New York so I've spent a lot of time there" she says. "They have a real culture of deli's which we don't have - there is very little kosher food in central London."

Judging by the number of men in kipot munching, elbow-to-elbow, in the snug eating area, they have got it right. Like Mishkin's, the look is utilitarian but here the food is strictly supervised by shomers.

Keeping kosher has not been without issues. "We wanted to serve different salads, but it was too complicated," Lee shrugs. They do offer an intriguing salt beef chilli and a deliciously moist honey mustard turkey. A generously filled salt beef sandwich sits between two slices of extremely fresh rye - supplied daily by Grodzinsky's.

Demand has been overwhelming. "Our only problem at the moment is that we're too small," she smiles. "We're planning on opening more delis and hopefully a kosher van to offer sandwiches and meat platters."

Amy Beilin is another Jewish foodie. The 33-year-old executive assistant at the JCC keeps kosher but has been endlessly frustrated by not being able to enjoy a proper English roast at her local pub.

"I travelled the world and kept kosher," she says. "It means that much to me. I believe you can have a fantastic meal using kosher meat."

Beilin attended a discussion entitled "Are all kosher restaurants rubbish?" at this year's Gefiltefest. "The audience was united in agreeing that more variety is needed. Someone even said they'd like a kosher roast," she laughs. "I had already been thinking about doing it, so that was really exciting, and I decided to get on and do it before someone else got there first."

She and her team are hosting a pop-up restaurant in The Shop in Kensal Rise. She believes there are two reasons for the interest in Jewish food. "The credit crunch has meant difficult times but we still want to have fun, and people will spend on things they want. It is also winter and so hearty, cosy food like this is popular".

Both Norman and Beilin talk of wanting to make people smile. With Kosher Roast a sell-out within days of booking starting, Mishkin's fast becoming the hot ticket in theatreland and Deli West One pulling in the crowds at all times of the day, perhaps there is something about Jewish food that does just that.

www.mishkins.co.uk; www.thedelilondon.com; www.kosherroast.co.uk

Last updated: 11:57am, December 12 2011