Let's Eat

Israel's 'punch in the face' cuisine

Chef, Assaf Granit, has just opened a third London eatery - why does he think Israeli food is so popular?


Israeli food remains the hottest ticket in town. The latest evidence of its fashion status is Coal Office, the recent collaboration between Tom Dixon OBE (one of the UK’s trendiest product designers) and chefs Assaf Granit and Uri Nevo. 
Granit and Nevo, together with Yossie Elad are the trio behind Jerusalem’s renowned restaurant, Machneyuda. They are also founding partners of London outposts, The Palomar and The Barbary. Elad has since retired, but Granit and Nevo remain prolific. The Israeli empire now comprises seven Jerusalem eateries, the London outposts plus Paris restaurant and cocktail bar, Balagan.

Tattoed and sporting an impressive beard, Granit works at an open kitchen, behind a brushed-steel counter. The restaurant sprawls over three floors of a modern building, which also houses Dixon’s headquarters. The dining rooms, are designed by Dixon — even down to the tableware.

The building is smart and slick and the food lives up to its surroundings. On the menu are Granit and Nevo’s trademark huge flavours and interesting combinations. Dishes like tuna tataki with figs and hazelnuts; smoky blackened aubergine slathered with green tahini and pistachios; seabass chraime (the spicy Sephardi tomato and pepper stew) and the Machneyuda classic polenta (pictured right) — a creamy, parmesan-packed copper pot of comfort food, topped with asparagus, mushrooms and pungent truffle.

Not long after opening, London’s grande dame of restaurant reviewing —Fay Maschler — awarded Coal Office five stars. Harder to come by than a (Paul) Hollywood handshake, this is gold dust for restaurateurs. “That’s a big one — I couldn’t sleep for days after she came in” admits Granit. “Fay is a tough one, she is well respected and knows her thing. She’s very educated in what she’s talking about.” The restaurant has been packed with people ever since.

Granit divides his time between here, his other London restaurants — co-owned with brother/sister partnership, Layo and Zoe Paskin — and Balagan in Paris, opened with French business partners. “I spend a lot of time on planes!”

Although queues continue to snake out of his restaurants Granit is not resting on his laurels. “The struggle is maintaining a place. Keeping it sharp is more effort than actually opening a restaurant.”

Dixon’s proposal presented Granit and Nevo with a new challenge: “We were very excited about the building and about doing something unique with Tom” says Granit. The restaurant — which is not kosher, but which offers a range of fish and vegetarian dishes — includes a bakery, bar, outdoor terraces and private dining rooms.

Granit, who turned 40 this year, says the menu evolves from the same philosophy he and his partners have always shared: “The core and essence of the base will always be our heritage, and the city we come from — Jerusalem. Modern Jerusalem cuisine.” He has adapted that core to fit this restaurant — as he does with all his projects. “The food is very different here. We’re approaching it in a different way — it’s a natural evolution. We’re getting more mature and experimenting with other stuff.”

At the heart of all his projects is simple home cooking: “The structure will always be taking heritage food. The food that’s cooked by grandmothers in homes in Israel, and elevating it to restaurant food by using different ways to present and plate it. Sometimes combining two heritage cuisines and creating a new one.”

Why does he think Israeli food remains so fashionable in London and other cities around the world?

“There are several reasons — firstly it’s new and something for people to discover; and secondly, it’s a very healthy cuisine, based on fruits and vegetables, with lots of olive oil. It feels healthy and light. It’s also not just an ‘ok’ food — it’s something that you either love or hate. It’s like a blast of flavour, using a lot of sour, and hot and spicy notes. It’s a punch in the face cuisine.”

What Granit also feels Israeli chefs bring to the table, is their own brand of hospitality.

“It’s very loose, friendly and welcoming. “I try to explain to my staff to think how they would feel if they were served by people who didn’t look at them in the eye. I’m constantly telling my staff at Coal Office the same thing. I tell them that in London, you can sit and no one will see you. You’re just a walking wallet. You could have a turkey on your head and they wouldn’t notice you! People [serving you] forget you’re a real person and just see through you. Israeli hospitality is not like that. I want my staff to treat people as if they’re welcoming guests to their own homes.”

He hires Israeli chefs for his kitchens when he can, but that’s not always easy. “It’s hard for them to get visas” he says. “The lucky ones with European passports are able to come but it’s not so easy for the others.” He says that his London chefs have a range of nationalities — from Italian to Tibetan and Brazilian to Japanese. “It’s like Israel it’s such a melting pot,” he says.

Have we reached peak Middle Eastern in terms of the trend? Granit thinks not: “I don’t think we’re there yet. I think it will go even bigger but will then be stable. It’s the new kid on the block, like Indian food — which is also a big flavour kitchen — was.”


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