How best for a restaurant to make someone lose their appetite? I vote for making the way to the table so narrow that even the slenderest guest feels like a prize heifer. And so I arrive at the back-room of The Palomar having 'Sorry, sorry, sorried' my way along the length of the bar, jogging elbows and dislodging plates as I go.
It's too narrow, guys. The bar is charming, but to have people on both sides of the corridor is crazy. You can't blame them: it's been rammed since the day it opened. The Palomar has industrial-grade buzz. Everybody wants in.
It's funny eating at a place then having a time-lag before you write a review. In the intervening weeks it has had garlands galore, but my visit isn't an unqualified success, so I try to do what food critics sometimes do: make a return visit to check my original opinion. But of course, I can't get a table…
So, here goes. The Palomar is sister restaurant to Machneyuda in Jerusalem. Its modern Israeli menu (although a country mile from kosher and with souvenirs from all over the Middle East in its fare) takes in a raw bar, small snacky selections and larger dishes from the oven or the grill. It uses only sustainable fish, from day boats, seasonal vegetables, and meat from small British farms. The team of the day is printed on the menu, so you know who's in the kitchen and who's working the room. We've got Tom. He delivers his script with vim, describing the dishes as "smaller in size, bigger in flavour", imploring us to "get involved", and so on. One of the three owners is sitting with friends and soon the lights dim and the music – a most eclectic soundtrack – gets louder. My companion Ruth and I discuss the music. "It's totally random and yet every single track is wrong," she notes.
The food is somewhat random too. There are some delicious, truly tantalising dishes but the presentation is, shall we say, uneven. A starter of kubenia (£8) comes in a wooden cabinet propped open with a knife. There's a small saucepan that doesn't quite fit inside holding tahini with a large quenelle of raw, well-seasoned, hand-chopped beef. Tom spoons over herby gubbins with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds from another little pan. Delicious, just not delivered very elegantly.
If you don't like dolls' house presentation, you won't like Kilner jars either, I'm guessing. Pop goes the lid on a starter-size jar of polenta Jerusalem-style (£5) and we are nasally assaulted. This "very popular signature dish", according to Tom, has soft polenta at its base, then a mushroom ragout, some asparagus spears and a lot of Parmesan shavings. Truffle oil lubricates this whiffy, claggy ensemble.
If you want some ballast before attacking the drinks menu – just one Israeli wine, a decent Syrah at £45, but some ace-sounding cocktails – this is the dish for you (although it's not for me).
More subtle is a fattoush salad – vibrant and accomplished and with home-made labneh (thick, sour yoghurt) at £8, and a polite plate of sea bass grilled in the Josper oven and served with braised broccoli, cardamom-scented crispy potatoes and a citrus vinaigrette. Pretty plate, pretty food (£15).
A deconstructed kebab is – for its ramshackle appearance (mince'n'stuff) – sensational and good value at £8.50. The beef is melting soft and, once mingled with "the four tops" of preserved lemon, yoghurt, tahini and harissa, a complex mouthful that makes one wish all local kebab shops could replicate it.
Persian oxtail stew is a dish too far – we didn't need it and it is huge. Oddly, a divided pressed- tin dish so beloved of Indian restaurants holds the meat, tart turnip tops and melty chickpeas, and is balanced on top of a narrow stand that looks perilous if we attempt an attack. The meat is, again, well cooked but quite an undertaking. It's decent bang for your £12.50 buck, mind.
A milk pudding is "thickened with cornflour", Tom says, as if this is a selling point. Um, we're all right, thanks. We're also stuffed. Mercifully, the crowds have diminished at the bar, otherwise I'd never have made it out.
It ain't polite, but if you choose to "get involved", The Palomar has good food for greedy folks with a high tolerance for buzz.
The Palomar, 34 Rupert Street, London W1, tel: 020 7439 8777. £82 for two, with wine
Four more foodie notes from the week
Granger & Co
Delightful dinner at my page-neighbour Bill's airy new place in east London: a medley of summer dishes including courgette chips, burrata and Korean fried chicken.
At a storytelling festival in St Donat's Castle, Wales, a deliciously hefty lamb burger from this farm company, with "lashings of minted mayonnaise".
Le Pain Quotidien
The local branch is now used to my odd breakfast request: one boiled egg and some slices of gruyère (the avoid-carbs regimen continues…)
National Restaurant Awards
Interesting run-down of places voted the UK's 100 Best. The wonderful Gymkhana went straight in at number one (my review is here: ind.pn/1xLNHr4).
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