LONDON – At the center of a large white plate lie three cubes of meat, which have been smoked with hay, per the latest trend, and glazed with balsamic vinegar. Sprinkled around them are pomegranate seeds and a dark pomegranate jus, as well as dashes of a celeriac puree, topped with a crunchy, nutty “sesame seed crumble.”
With its interplay of dark and light colors, the plate is so beautiful it could easily be mistaken for dessert.
In fact, it’s flanken, or short ribs of veal – though completely unlike any flanken our grandparents might have prepared.
Welcome to Restaurant 1701, which in October became one of a tiny handful of kosher eateries worldwide to be listed in the Michelin Guide. The achievement is magnified by the fact it has only been open since June.
Nestled behind the oldest synagogue in London, the historic Bevis Marks, its food is the ultimate intersection between ancient and modern.
The restaurant is about more than fine dining, which itself is rare enough in kosher circles. The concept, says owner Lionel Salama, is to take traditional Jewish foods from all over the world, and bringing them up-to-date.
“Jewish food isn’t usually celebrated – it’s a necessity,” he says. “We want to celebrate Jewish cuisine.”
Hence, the beautifully crafted menu, which includes hand-drawn illustrations and a short blurb on the origins of every dish. It includes “an interpretation of” Friday night dinner – Chicken breast, sweet potato, caramelized shallots and baby fennel – as well as chopped liver, gefilte fish and kreplach.
Of course, in the restaurant’s hands, these are virtually unrecognizable. The gefilte fish, for example, is made of wild sea bass and is set among delicate mounds of orange ginger and carrot jelly, deep red beetroot and horseradish, and white aspic.
More exotic dishes include a version of the Moroccan pastilla – braised lamb neck in phyllo pastry, spiced nuts, parsnip puree, capters and golden raisin jus – with an intriguing mixture of sweet and tart flavors; the Sephardi pescado frito – a tempura of red mullet, almond tarator, baby artichokes and samphire; and Afghan Palau Kabuli, which is pan-fried duck breast, confit duck leg, nettle risotto and puffed wild rice.
Desserts also run the geographical gamut, spanning from a Germanic Apfelshcalet – a crisp almond phyllo, roast apple, cassis sorbet, blackberry sphere, pistachio crumble, raisin purée and fresh mint – to a sweet, light Indian coconut rice pudding mousse topped by diced mango and a delicate coconut crisp, and surrounded by black cherry gel and toasted almond powder.
The restaurant itself is minimalist, with the most striking feature the windows which offer a direct view into the historic synagogue.
On a Thursday evening, the crowd seems to be a mixture of dating couples, businessmen with non-Jewish clients and a smattering of London’s large French-Jewish population, several of whom are talking to the restaurant manager, Stephane Penhkoss, in French.
Many of the staff have experience in top London eateries: Penkhoss previously worked at The Ritz, while the two chefs trained under stars Yotam Ottolenghi, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal.
Indeed, the opening of Restaurant 1701 – as well as Zest at London’s brand-new Jewish community center, JW3, where the chefs also worked for Ottolenghi – must be seen in the context of the general rise of fine dining in London, which is now considered one of the world’s best foodie destinations.
It was inevitable that the kosher market would eventually demand a similar experience, although Salama notes that many of their guests are not necessarily kosher, but are happy to discover that a kosher establishment can rival the places they normally frequent.
Salama says that the restaurant, which has been reviewed quite widely in the mainstream press, has also attracted attention from non-Jews because it brings an “important new aspect” to the London food scene.
“Jewish cuisine hasn’t previously been celebrated in this country,” he says.
The concept behind the restaurant “isn’t so unusual”, though.
“Heston Blumenthal has done something similar with British food at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, taking dishes from bygone eras and making them contemporary,” he says.
The idea for a similar kosher venture first came up when Bevis Marks, the Restaurant – another fine dining establishment – vacated the space, because it wanted to expand. The synagogue approached Salama, who had already made a name for himself in London’s kosher world with Adafina, a gourmet food range.
Initially he planned to hire chefs with no kosher experience to ensure that they came “with no baggage.” Over three months, they set their candidates dishes to interpret, such as gefilte fish or apple strudel.
“It was remarkable how many of them got the taste right, even if they’d never made gefilte fish before,” says Salama. “But it was always much nicer to look at.”
Ironically, in the end they hired an Israeli head chef, Oren Goldfeld, who trained in Israel in Eyal Lavie’s Rokach 73 and in London in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi.
“I liked the idea because I knew the food,” he says in Hebrew, in which he is clearly still much more comfortable. “My father is an Ashkenazi from Poland, my maternal grandmother is a Jerusalemite. It’s a challenge to take all this food that doesn’t have much sex appeal – especially on the Ashkenazi side – and give it to them.”
One challenge has been to get consumers used to smaller portions than other kosher restaurants serve.
“We’re not about great big portions like grandma used to serve – we make no bones about it,” says Salama. “But unless you need those great big portions, you won’t go away hungry. At first we were quite sensitive about it, but then realized that you can’t please everyone. For the traditional kosher consumer, we have the wow factor.”
The listing in Michelin, he says, is only the first step in proving that.
“Our ultimate goal is of course a Michelin star,” says Salama.