Israeli Restaurateurs Broaden Their Horizons With a New Eatery in London
The chefs who made Machneyuda into Jerusalem’s hottest ticket team up with British nightclub owners to open The Palomar
The owners started considering somewhere in Europe—Berlin, perhaps. Enter Layo Paskin. A recently retired English DJ, Paskin, 43, used to be half of the house music group Layo & Bushwacka! With his younger sister Zoe, he owned and ran The End, a nightclub with an adjacent restaurant, near London’s Covent Garden. After 14 years of business, the Paskins lost their lease in 2009. They dreamed of opening another restaurant and soon befriended the Machneyuda crew on one of Layo’s many trips to Jerusalem to spin music at Hauman 17, the city’s legendary nightclub. They began talking about a partnership. “Machneyuda are ambitious people, and it just felt very right,” Layo Paskin told me. The Paskins are Jewish, something that seems to have made the Israeli chefs more comfortable about working with them, but when I asked Layo whether his heritage had anything to do with his decision to partner with an Israeli team, he took a few moments to think. “I think there’s a part of me that feels good about bringing this to London, coming full circle,” he said. “I’m not at all religious, but on the cultural level I take it very seriously.”
In January 2013, the chefs and the Paskins started looking for a place—“not the easiest thing to do in London,” Layo said—and finally, last summer they found one on Rupert Street in Soho. The proximity to Leicester Square is roughly the same as Machneyuda’s to the shuk, but the surroundings couldn’t be more different, with London’s West End theaters and Chinatown eateries taking the place of Jerusalem’s market’s stalls and pubs.
The Palomar is both a Machneyuda transplant in London and a unique creature in its own right. The menu is similar; Londoners will get a taste of Machneyuda’s most popular dishes, including creamy polenta in a jar (which received Martha Stewart’s stamp of approval when she hosted Navon on her show). The restaurant aims to recreate the Jerusalem-style warm hospitality: Diners have eye contact with the chefs from the moment they enter and are immediately surrounded by produce. The bar facing the open kitchen is open to walk-ins. But what about those nightly dance sessions? “Our feeling is that Soho is the best location for getting a little bit wild, but obviously people in Jerusalem are quite different. The weather denotes a completely different culture,” said Paskin, ever the Englishman. “I really hope it can develop organically in that direction, but you never know how people will respond. A Londoner might let her hair down in Jerusalem, but will she do that in London?” Granit, himself a somewhat reticent man who initially had trouble adapting to the Machneyuda haflot, will stay on site for the first weeks of operation, primarily to gauge the diners’ reactions. “We’ll start with the volume low, and see how things go,” he told me. When he departs, he’ll leave the reins with the head chef, Tomer Amedi, another former protégé, who most recently ran the Yudale; Amedi’s wife, Yael Vardi, is the pastry chef.
The Palomar’s name is meant to evoke the Middle East and Mediterranean, while also being pronounceable (the local crew has trouble enough saying the names of the Israeli chefs, Paskin told me, let alone the mouthful that is Machneyuda). It is far from being the first London restaurant with strong Israeli ties. Honey & Co., an Israeli-run cafe in Fitzrovia, has been a hit since its 2012 opening (Time Out wrote that “finding a spare table at short notice is rarer than finding a burning bush in the desert”). Golders Green is swarming with kosher restaurants, some of which are operated by Israelis.
But the sole towering figure is, of course, Yotam Ottolenghi. Alongside his partner, Sami Tamimi, a fellow ex-Jerusalemite (Tamimi hails from East Jerusalem), Ottolenghi owns four delis that offer casual dining, and a classier restaurant, NOPI. But his three cookbooks—particularly his most recent, Jerusalem, co-authored with Tamimi—have catapulted him and the city’s cuisine to a previously unimaginable level of popularity. A recent BBC poll found that 72 percent of U.K. citizens have primarily negative views of Israel. If there is one thing that makes Paskin optimistic about the success of a London-based restaurant that plans on proudly flaunting its Jerusalem roots, it is Ottolenghi. “He’s paved the way for people having a much more open mind, and created a big appetite for the sort of authentic cuisine we serve,” he said. London, with its 8 million residents (not to mention almost 17 million tourists in 2013), is home to thousands of restaurants—there is nothing there that resembles the vacuum Machneyuda took advantage of in Jerusalem. But on this point, too, Paskin is confident: “The choice means that you’ve got to compete at a level where you’re at the very top of your game, because we’re entering a market where everyone else is doing that. But the angle we have is that they’re great at what they do, and it’s an amazing night out.”
Ronit Vered, who covers the culinary world both in Israel and abroad for Haaretz, saw The Palomar’s potential for success. “Of course it’s difficult to predict how the restaurant will fare, but there’s certainly a huge interest in Mediterranean cuisine and particularly in Israeli cuisine,” she said. “Places like Ottolenghi’s restaurants in London and Breads Bakery in New York have benefited greatly from that interest.” Vered suspects that Europeans and Americans have an easier time with Middle Eastern food when they receive it through Israeli “mediation.” “For many people, the Arab world still seems foreign and threatening, and a group like Machneyuda makes that food seem happier and more modern,” she said. “They even make it easier on the palate, with their Western-style cooking techniques. Managing a restaurant in London from a home base in Israel will be a challenge, but at least so far as an audience is concerned, there is no lack of interest in what they have to offer.”
Layo Paskin believes that the new restaurant will open English patrons’ eyes. “Because of the issues Israel has, most people don’t realize just how developed the restaurant scene there is,” he said. “My wife, who is Brazilian, was completely blown away there. So, I think there’s a hope in the back of mind that it will change the way people think of Israel, help them realize that it isn’t just falafel and hummus.”
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