Monday, 1 June 2015
Palomar has - unbelievably - been open for a year. Unbelievable because it seems like only yesterday the massed critics and bloggers of London were falling over themselves to lavish praise on the place and also unbelievable because twelve months on from those triumphant opening weeks it still shows absolutely no sign of being anything less than the hottest ticket in town.
Which rather begs the question, why have I taken my sweet time? Long gone are the days when I'd try to have my review out before the paint in the gents had dried, but neither was I self-consciously avoiding the place; in fact I knew, somewhere at the back of my mind, for certain, I'd love Palomar. Because, it seems, everyone does. This restaurant doesn't have fans, it doesn't even have anything as straightforward has regulars. It has lovers. In short, I don't know why it's taken me so long. I'm an idiot. I didn't know what was good for me. But I've been now, and I too, now, am in love.
Taking part in an evening here (I can't even describe it as anything as dull as a "meal") is like being invited to the best party in town, being asked to dance by the most attractive person in the room, and then being snogged full on the face before you had a chance to reply. It's not just thrilling, it's acutely, almost embarrassingly flattering, a whirlwind of hospitality that sweeps you off your feet, tenderly offers you exquisite Middle Eastern dishes of passion and invention, then lowers you back onto the streets of Soho a few hours later with your face covered in lipstick and shirt buttons undone. Metaphorically! Metaphorically. Ahem.
The whole experience shines, and not just because the restaurant itself is gorgeous (though it is, at least the bar is - stools at the perfect height to a gleaming zinc surface, overlooking a frenetic open kitchen populated by beautiful people who look like they're having the time of their lives). At around 6pm I was told the wait would be an hour, and precisely an hour later (swiftly passed with a couple of cocktails up the road in Spuntino) they called me back. Anyone who thinks no reservations restaurants are a hardship are just being awkward.
But amidst all my gushing over the atmosphere and service I hope you don't think the food and drink are fringe events. Not a bit of it. An off-menu cocktail called Into The Wild (£8) was a minty, citrussy affair based with vodka rather than the more usual gin and matched with the first bit of food (some dainty chicken liver crostini - sorry, "Yiddish bruschetta") remarkably well.
Challah bread is a fluffy brioche-style thing, plaited and golden glazed. I've occasionally bought it from Gail's on Northcote Road, and very good it was too but I was never quite sure the best thing to do with it. Here, lightly toasted and dipped in olive oil and tahini, it suddenly made perfect sense, sweet and salty and rich, and so addictive the only thing stopping us order another (at a pathetic £2 a go) was the worry we wouldn't have room for the rest of the menu.
Shakshukit is a "deconstructed kebab", containing mince, yoghurt, tahini, a variety of herbs and dressings and a lovely fresh pitta straight from the grill. Richly flavoured and generous in size, it was a perfect advertisement for the kind of food that Palomar produce - in their own words "of modern day Jerusalem... influenced by the rich cultures of Southern Spain, North Africa and the Levant." Most of London will be new to these flavours, but like Berber & Q since, they know there's a city-wide love affair here just waiting to happen.
"Jerusalem Mix", a heady concoction of grilled offal (livers, hearts and sweetbreads) spiked with oily okra and tahini, was similarly captivating. Perhaps if I'd had something like this before somewhere else I'd have been slightly more level-headed and critical in my approach, and wouldn't have hoovered it up in seconds like a starving wild animal. But even objectively this was perfectly seasoned, powerfully-flavoured and served by people who just knew it was wonderful - an attitude literally impossible to resist.
Last of the savouries was a plate of wild seabass with a lentil & octopus salad. Getting a delicate crisp, dry skin on any fillet of fish means you're already 99% of the way there in my book, and so the gorgeous garlic and confit olive sauce it rested on, not to mention the chunks of grilled octopus mixed in with the lentils, just made it all the more special.
Dessert was a shared bowl of "Malabi", a milk pudding topped with raspberry coulis, studded with little bits of coconut meringue. I've a sneaking suspicion this wasn't quite as brilliant as what had come before but I was so hopelessly besotted with Palomar by this point they probably could have given me a used ashtray and I'd have knocked it back in six spoonfuls with a dreamy smile on my face. We paid the bill (just over £50 a head) as a member of the kitchen staff poured us a couple of shots of the house liqueur (some sort of citrus I think, don't ask me) and one for herself, as if she wanted us to stay all night. I would have done, in a heartbeat.
Like after any great restaurant I've had the pleasure of visiting in the past, I have spent the last few days trying to analyse exactly what it is that Palomar are doing that makes them so extraordinary. Because realistically, at a basic level, they are just bringing you dinner, and you are paying for it, and so are lots of other places. It is - though I have to peel myself off the ceiling to admit it - just a restaurant.
But it's the sheer enthusiasm and joy they bring to the whole business that puts them in a complete category of their own. The food isn't just reasonably priced and tasty, it's exciting and unlike anywhere else in town. The room isn't just comfortable and beautiful, but feels like the front row of a tiny theatre, an intimate, immersive production that spins effortlessly around you and leaves you breathless. And the service - there needs to be a new word for it; you're not just looked after, you're embraced. And the least I can do, the least I'm even able to do, is embrace Palomar right back.
Palomar, barring any natural disasters, will be in the next version of the app. Meantime download it to see where else is good.