From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Israel



Restaurant: The White House
Location: Golders Green

By Boeing: 2494 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.6 miles


It was a dark and damp evening in Golders Green as I peered through the window of a restaurant at a sullen waiter attending a row of empty tables. The dimly illuminated menu offered a lamb chop for £23. I decided to explore other options, afterall a friend just returned from Tel Aviv had told of a friendly, bustling and hedonistic city. Vast expense among a vast expanse didn't seem to reflect that at all. A short walk down the road was somewhere that appeared to fit the bill, in more sense that one.


The narrow, stylish, low-lit restaurant was busy and bubbling with conversation. Black tables and red leather booths and bar stools gave it the feel of a swish American diner while the open kitchen of Shawarma skewers and bowls of fragrant appetisers leant it an
intimate Mediterranean charm. Clocks on the wall gave the time in London, New York and Tel Aviv.


Israel is a country that is at once part of the rich history of its region but that stands alone. A Jewish enclave in the Arab world it draws on the same bountiful basket of the Levant while having a proud and distinct cultural heritage. Its links with America, both politically and culturally, are evident and reflected, perhaps, in the name of the restaurant, The White House, their strongest ally in an increasingly turbulent world.

I decided to soak up the atmosphere and listen in to the urgent chatter of chefs by sitting on a stool at the bar, sandwiched between two rotund Jewish gentlemen sporting impressive top hats. Elbow room was at a premium but in compensation for being cramped there was the rich aroma and evocative proximity with dishes being prepared and whisked off to the throng of tables. I ordered a Maccabee, an Israeli beer, and took a few sips while looking up at the plasma screen above the bar streaming news from across the globe. A beer, I reflected, that may not flow as freely in Israel's neighbours.

Assuming it was a menu I picked up a booklet. Opening it it looked like a transcript of the Enigma code, a dizzying array of symbols. This was of course Hebrew, a beautiful, crafted written language with an intellectual aspect that appeals to the Jewish diaspora who live far and wide but crane their neck towards their spiritual home. I commandeered a menu when my top-hatted companion's gaze was diverted by Tahini infused shawarma oozing out of a sandwich layered with pickles.

It was a culinary homage to the distinct cultural ties of Israel. On the one hand the familiar regional dishes I have enjoyed elsewhere on this journey, like Falafel, hummus and the sweated, sweet-scented Aubergine dish of Baba Ganoush. These stood cheek by jowel with American staples like Hot Dogs and Burgers. But between this delicious dichotomy are dishes of Eastern European origin, like rich broths and schnitzels.

To begin I ordered, on the recommendation of the owner, a doppleganger for Chelsea owner Roman Abrahmovic, a Yemenite Soup. This rich, spicy beef soup was brought to the promised land from Yemen in the so called Operation Magic Carpet migration of 1950. This rich, red ragu was very aromatic and wholesome, with chunks of chump steak floating in the broth. After this I ordered a platter of falafel, the national dish of Israel, with hummus and tahini. These are flavours enjoyed across the Levant and Arabia, from Turkey to Iraq. The size of the portion was, frankly, absurd for an individual, perhaps explaining why my fellow diners' braces were bending over ample stomachs. To finish, though I scarcely had any appetite left, I ordered a chicken schnitzel, sliced and slipped inside fluffy Laffa bread.

After several minutes, and another beer, and an ear listening to gaggle of cocksure teenagers on a nearby table, the chef leant over with my sizzling schnitzel clenched in its sandwich. He then moved his way west to east along the salad bar making ingredients into questions. “hummus?” “Yes, be liberal.” tahini?” “A dribble.” “stewed aubergine?” “Oh, yes please.” And so it went on for several metres and several minutes. In the end I counted no fewer than thirteen additions to my schnitzel shawarma. It was deftly wrapped in paper and slapped on a plate. I had to hyper-extend my jaw like a dessert dwelling snake in order to take a bite. When I did so I felt an oily, creamy droplet slide down my chin. Thankfully serviettes were on hand. Watching me struggle to contain it all within its bread boundary the waitress giggled. This is the taste of Israel I thought; complex, contextual and completely over-flowing.

Barely able to stand I bid adieu to eclectic mix of diners and clearly in some kind of stupor was lured into the kosher paradise bakery opposite. Though I couldn't entertain the thought of another calorie passing my lips the notion of a kosher eclair was just too wonderful. The pastry cracked and the cream and coffee burst into my mouth and down my front. It was gluttony, no other word for it. I deserved to be arrested for crimes against constraint. But I wasn't, and climbed on a bus home.