Kosher chameleon

Can a Gentile chef successfully create a Jewish equivalent of The Ivy? The orthodox diners at Six-13 seem to think so
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Given that the Jewish population of Greater London is around 200,000, it's surprising that no one has opened a gourmet kosher restaurant before. Yes, there are several kosher restaurants in the capital, but most of them serve the kind of hearty, heimishe food - salt beef, latkes, chopped liver - that sticks to the ribs rather than tickles the tastebuds.

Given that the Jewish population of Greater London is around 200,000, it's surprising that no one has opened a gourmet kosher restaurant before. Yes, there are several kosher restaurants in the capital, but most of them serve the kind of hearty, heimishe food - salt beef, latkes, chopped liver - that sticks to the ribs rather than tickles the tastebuds.

The owners of Six-13 have set their sights considerably higher.

Inspired by Le Marais, a kosher French restaurant in Manhattan, they've set out to create the Jewish equivalent of The Ivy, a modern fine-dining experience which also happens to be kosher. They describe Six-13's style as "Jewish fusion", but give or take a dumpling here and some salt beef there, there's nothing particularly ethnic about the menu. Created by Stephen Collins, a non-Jewish graduate of Quaglino's who has adapted his style from Conran to kashrut, it offers contemporary dishes with Pacific Rim flourishes, while still observing kosher rules, under the supervision of London's Beth Din.

Six-13 occupies handsome premises in Wigmore Street, famous for its medical supply shops, and more recently as a Bermuda Triangle for newly-launched restaurants. From the outside, there's no obvious sign of Six-13's Jewish roots, or even that it's a restaurant at all; no menus sully the expensively marble-clad entrance. Only the mezuzah (scroll) by the door, and the name (referring to the 613 mitvos, or Jewish rules for living) would hint at its religious orientation.

Inside though, you can hardly fail to notice that the manager, some of the waiters and most of the male diners are wearing yarmulkes. Within a few weeks of its low-key opening, Six-13 has obviously reached its target clientele, and on a Tuesday night was three-quarters full of smart middle-aged groups and young couples. A surreptitious survey of the room convinced me that I was probably the only non-Jew among the customers, but there was certainly nothing unwelcoming about the atmosphere.

The menu is dairy-free (according to Jewish dietary law, meat and milk shouldn't be prepared or eaten together), and ranges from simple classics - grilled Dover sole, roast duck breast with red cabbage - through to trendy global combinations such as pumpkin tart with harissa, or sea bream with hummus and coriander pesto. For the nostalgic or curious, a few traditional Eastern European staples are present, though they've been given a contemporary tweak - classic chicken soup becomes consommé with herbed matzo balls, while lockshen pudding comes with "fresh summer berries". Pricing seems erratic - the sea bream costs £14, against £10.50 for tagliatelle with tomato, olives and spinach - but averages at around £18 for main courses.

Simon, my dinner-date, has been a friend for 20 years, and whenever we eat out, his choice is always severely limited because he keeps kosher. So he was thrilled by the unaccustomed freedom offered by Six-13. Our meal began promisingly with good, home-made olive bread and focaccio crusted with salt and rosemary (no butter, of course).

Simon then progressed to a plate of smoked salmon, which comes in two grades, "wild" (at a wildly expensive £15.50 a portion), and "tame" (farmed) at £8. "One thing about Jews, they know their smoked salmon, so it's bound to be good," Simon said, opting for the wild. And indeed it was good - lean, silky and plentiful - though he wasn't sure it quite lived up to its monster price tag. "Next time, I'll try the cheaper one," he resolved. "After all, I'm just eating it, not hanging out with it."

My barley soup with butter beans was a homely favourite with a college education; the base was still chicken stock, and the beans and pearl barley were abundant, but it was far lighter and less fatty than is traditional. Chopped salt beef, which in any other circumstances might have been taken for bacon, added piquancy. If I'd have known it was a feature of the soup, I wouldn't have ordered salt beef for my main course, though the Six-13 treatment elevated it to something more akin to pot-au-feu. The meat was very lean, with that characteristic melting but still fibrous texture, the slices resting in a clear broth, over a mound of good mashed potato. Sliced gherkin and dense horseradish dumplings bolstered the ethnic credentials of the dish.

Perhaps it was the novelty of being able to eat meat in a restaurant that made Simon come over all squeamish when it came to ordering his rib-eye steak. "I want it well done. No red... reddiness... red stuff at all," he stammered. "You mean blood!" I hissed. Despite its well-doneness, his beef was tender and full of flavour. Trimmings were kept simple; béarnaise sauce and a cluster of crunchy golden chips. As we traded appreciative mouthfuls, Simon reflected, "that's the good thing about being in a Jewish restaurant - you can pass food around and no one bats an eyelid."

He characterised our extremely well-turned-out fellow diners as St John's Wood residents come south. Everyone seemed to know someone at a neighbouring table, and there was a huge amount of back-slapping and Happy New Year-ing going on. "All it needs now is for Jackie Mason to walk in, and it really will be the Jewish Ivy," Simon observed.

Stephen Collins has risen manfully to the challenge of compiling a dairy-free dessert menu, and has apparently been conducting experiments to come up with a soya-milk ice cream which will pass muster. I tried a banana version with some pliable chocolate brownies, and found it slightly gluey, but otherwise acceptable. Simon's pavlova looked like an expressionistic version of the St George's Cross; a white dome of meringue startlingly bisected by raspberry coulis, and yielding to a sticky centre of super-sweet lemon curd. "I don't love this," he murmured, though his enthusiasm for the Six-13 project propelled him through an unfeasible amount of it.

With coffees and a £16 bottle of house Merlot from the kosher wine list, we paid around £50 each, and felt able to add our voices to the delighted clamour of our neighbours, all of whom seemed to be offering congratulations to Six-13's owner. "That's a good sign," said Simon. "Let's face it, if there's something to complain about, Jewish people are always going to find it..."

Six-13, 19 Wigmore Street, London W1 (020-7629 6133). Sun-Thur 11.30am-3pm, 5.30-11pm; Fri 11.30am-2pm (4pm in winter), Sat (winter only) 7.30-11pm. Disabled access. All cards except Diners

Comments