Let's Eat

Why I've turned kosher restaurateur

The owner of London's smartest kosher restaurant has unique reasons for opening Tish


Soft jazz plays and waiting staff glide around bearing plates of artistically presented food. White-jacketed chefs chop, stir, fry and boil.

In front of me are three plates of food — soft, smooth cubes of steak tartare bound with a piquant sauce, topped with thin, crunchy rye toast; tender slices of tongue paired with chunky, baby beet quarters and sweet but fiery horseradish. On the third, a rainbow of beetroot and heritage carrots lie on a schmear of whipped hummus. I’m at new Belsize Park eatery, Tish, and it’s all kosher.

With me is the owner of this temple to the Ashkenazi table — Cambridge-educated businessman, David Levin. He is not a restaurateur — well, he wasn’t until 18 months ago.

“It’s been a dream of mine for a very long time, to open a restaurant, and as soon as I could manage to do it financially, I did,” he tells me.

He wasn’t raised on restaurant fare. “My family didn’t eat out much. I learned to cook at eight when my mother fell ill — I would help her in the kitchen. By the time I was a teenager I was making meals for my father, brother and sister.”

His mother died when he was 17, but two of her recipes live on at Tish. “The lockshen pudding and chicken schnitzel were both hers that I have adapted over the years. I taught the chefs here how to make them,” he explains. The lockshen pudding is authentically dense enough to transport you back to your grandma’s Friday night table, but dressed in trendy new garb.

His motives in opening a kosher restaurant are not entirely altruistic. Although keen to provide high quality nosh for the observant eaters of north west London, there was some self-interest. “As a single person I’d spent a lot of Shabbats sitting on my own at home, and my friends sat on their own. It’s very easy to say, ‘Why didn’t you get together and one of you cook’, but it’s not always easy to do when you’re working hard. But when you’ve got a restaurant that’s open on Shabbat like Tish, it’s much easier to say ‘Let’s all meet at Tish for Friday night or Shabbat lunch’. It works very well. I felt tremendously strongly about it, as I’ve sat too often on my own.”

Now he can share his Shabbat with fellow diners, who may include singles like him or families wanting a break from cooking; making Kiddush ahead of a three course meal — with the added bonus of someone else doing the dishes. 
Payment is made in advance for a three course set meal with wine for kiddush, challah and coffee or mint tea. It costs £39 for a Friday night and £22.50 on Saturday — children’s portions are half price.

He admits that the Shabbat meals are run at a loss. Tables cannot be turned and the pre-booking system made variable pricing impossible so he had to fix the cost. “We should be charging £60, but I didn’t want to exclude anyone, so we’ve charged a price that is guaranteed to lose money, even if we sell every seat, because I just want to do it.”

Tish has cost him a small fortune but he still has his “day job”, running an investment company — which still takes up 50 percent of his time. He shuttles between his Great Portland Street office, the Belsize Park restaurant and his home in Hampstead Village. Was it convenient geography that led him to choose a property on the high rent slopes of Haverstock Hill?

“I love this location, which is almost unique in London — you have an outdoor terrace that’s not a public pavement. You can actually decorate it properly.”

Levin, who describes himself as “a detail person” has invested more than money into the project. Well-connected, he reels off a list of some of London’s most high-powered restaurant royalty from whom he took advice. He has hand picked his staff from top London eateries — his general manager comes from London icon, Scott’s, and pastry chef, Beth Watts, most recently worked at Maze.

He has aimed high. The room oozes luxe — tables are clad in Brazilian quartzite; embossed leather lines the sides of the bar; chandeliers were custom made. Two six feet tall mirrors were sourced from an Italian antique vendor and dark green, leather and fabric clad chairs were custom-designed for maximum comfort.

“I got people of various heights to test them” he smiles, going on to tell me they are sprung — like a mattress — which gives a satisfying bounce. You get the feeling that Levin is obsessive over the minutiae; he’s distracted from our chat several times, asking his staff to adjust the air conditioning or music levels.

He acted fast when early feedback wasn’t great — you get the feeling he took this initial criticism personally. “When people don’t have a good experience, I’m miserable” he admits. He’ll need a thick skin, as his guests are often ready to share their experiences. He has worked hard to turn his project around and recent reviews — both press and word of mouth — indicate that he’s winning. He still wants to attract more guests for breakfasts , cocktails and for late-night dining — he is allowed to serve until 12.30am most nights of the week — the perfect post-cinema venue.

On his advice, I try the chicken schnitzel — crisp, golden, juicy thigh meat, paired with roasted fingerling potatoes (long, new potatoes) and a mound of rich, smoky pepperonata. Levin’s duck breast (which he insisted I taste from his plate) was meltingly soft and comforting, paired with bubble and squeak laced with chunks of tongue. It’s comfort food for anyone raised on an Eastern European menu. “I wanted a well prepared selection of food your grandma could cook, like chicken soup, as well as food no one would cook at home”

Whether or not Tish achieves Levin’s aspirations remains to be seen. It’s definitely the glossiest kosher restaurant in town, offering a slickly-served menu — light years away from what most of us will have been used to. And if Levin can step back and let his team work their magic, perhaps he’ll find someone to share his Shabbat with.

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