He loves to eat, but when he opened his eclectic bookshop in London’s Temple Fortune and added a little cafe, lawyer-turned-bookseller-and-restaurateur Michael Joseph never imagined it would one day become a dining destination.
“Howard Jacobson is a fan, but when he first came here it was just for book readings,” says Joseph, who is now almost as busy with food critics piling into Cafe Also as he is with customers at the adjacent Joseph’s Bookstore, which has been a fixture on the north London scene for 20 years.
Amos Oz and other scions of the Israeli and Jewish literary world have also visited, although Joseph does not want to be pigeon-holed as a seller only of Jewish literature, but one who blends the genre with the best of world literature.
And food and books go together, he insists: “A cafe, which we opened in 2001 when we took over the ladies’ clothing boutique next to the bookshop, was a natural addition. By that time we had evolved into perhaps the only place a lesbian rabbi might meet a Chasid, and find reading matter of mutual interest they might want to sit down and talk about over coffee.”
So although Cafe Also has segued in the past year from a casual eatery into a much more serious restaurant, winning plaudits for its innovative food, the walls are still lined with books for diners to browse through over breakfast, lunch or dinner. This is a restaurant, which serves food 14 hours a day, and the bookshop does not close until the last diner has crept home.
“My good fortune was being introduced by a mutual friend to a really talented chef with a great local reputation who wanted to return to north-west London,” says Joseph of Cafe Also co-owner Ali Al-Sersy, the Egyptian-born chef who took over last year. He has created a sophisticated menu heavy on vegetables and fish, which has been garnering rave reviews, and for the last three months dinner has been added to the offerings several nights a week.
The marriage between the Jew who loves to eat and the Egyptian used to pleasing a Jewish clientele is one made in heaven, according to the partners.
“When we met just over a year ago I realised he was no ordinary chef, but a food poet,” says Joseph, admiringly, while Al-Sersy smiles and retires to the kitchen to prepare a little something to tickle our palates. “He goes to market several times a week, composing in his head the dishes he is inspired to create by the produce he’s looking at. And when he makes the dish, the plate is as beautiful to look at as the food is to eat.”
As if to prove Joseph right, Al-Sersy comes out to present a dish of candy-striped beetroot garnished with apricots and blackberries and dressed with fromage blanc. It is an assembly which dazzles like bright, edible jewels on its white porcelain plate and provides a reminder that Al-Sersy trained with the best, at the multi-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, but has never renounced the eastern Mediterranean influences which inform his food.
It was actually in New Barnet where Al-Sersy made his name with his first restaurant, Mims, after leaving Mayfair and the Roux brothers — and a spell cooking for the Qatari royal family — with considerable culinary skills under his belt. He branched out into his own building with Mims in Chelsea in 2002-5 before deciding he wanted to return to north-west London and a clientele who already knew and loved his kind of food.
Al-Sersy is at the stove at Cafe Also virtually all day and evening, cooking, experimenting and sending out delicious brunch, lunch and cocktail hour dishes to the noshers and browsers who ensure there is always someone there wanting to tuck into a tasty morsel.
They could be offered anything from a tempura of Jerusalem artichoke (an ingredient which reappears in smoked form on the dinner menu) to roasted haloumi cheese or a chestnut veggie-burger in a brioche bun. And although Al-Sersy left Egypt when he was 13, he makes a mean shakshouka, the spicy dish of eggs in tomatoes and peppers so relished for breakfast in Israel and the Middle East.
Everything at Cafe Also is now home-made, from the pitta bread to the ice cream, and naturally there is a cake du jour to go with the coffee — sometimes made from courgettes, sometimes a more conventional banana or blueberry.
Although the decor — simple, even spartan — has not yet evolved to match the cuisine, local celebrities like the actress Eleanor Bron have become regulars since Al-Sersy took over. And now Jacobson makes sure he visits whenever he is in town — even when he does not have a reading.