In front of me is a bowl of chicken soup with a large beige ball in it. It’s not steaming. It has just the comforting warmth of a light duvet on an early summer morning. The ball is a pillowy dumpling of matzo, a squashing together of wheat flour, egg, water and schmaltz (chicken fat). Around it float small and crispy pieces of chicken and the odd chunk of carrot.
The soup is heavenly but seems at odds with the location. I’m sitting in The Ned, a private members club in the old Midland Bank headquarters. It’s all leather booths and ferns and feels a bit like sitting in Rick’s Café in Casablanca. With membership costing £3,500 per annum, £3-worth of chicken matzo soup is a humble choice.
But food at the The Ned’s newest restaurant, Zobler’s Delicatessen, has tongues wagging. Jay Rayner says it ‘bellows of a chicken sacrificed to a noble cause’. GQ writes in praise of the Reubens-style cheesecake. Soup aside, I’d happily work my way through heaps of the potato latkes dunked in stewed apple and sour cream. And it’s part of a greater hunger for Jewish food that is currently spreading from the capital outwards.
Monty’s Deli, which used to be a pop-up stop-off place for Jewish food in Bermondsey, opened its first permanent home in Hoxton in April. A few weeks ago the Gefiltefest on Finchley Road (the biggest festival of Jewish food in Europe) witnessed its busiest year yet. It’s even reached the West Country. Bristol’s first salt beef bar (inspired by Brick Lane institution, Beigel Bake) opened last month with a Reuben’s sandwich featuring blowtorched Swiss cheese.
‘It is a strange phenomena, especially considering anti-Semitism is at the highest level it has been for a very long time,’ says Mark Ogus, owner of Monty’s. In early June two kosher restaurants in Manchester were targeted in arson attacks, while another fire is under investigation at a Jewish supermarket in Golder’s Green. Meanwhile, it has been reported that suspected hate offences against Jews rose by almost 15% in 2016.
‘It possibly started with Ottolenghi and his approach to Israeli cuisine,’ Mark continues. He also cites the Instagram-friendliness of an oozing Reuben’s sandwich (salt beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and rye bread) and the British fascination with all things USA. ‘US culture is like a constantly moving kaleidoscope of influences and sometimes it makes very beautiful things, and sometimes it produces really ugly things. In the UK we can’t seem to look away.’
Back at The Ned, Andrew Zobler, the founder of the Sydell Group that owns it, is adamant that Jewish food is more than just the new ‘dirty burger’. Like Monty’s, Zobler’s is inspired by the food of legendary New York delis such as Katz’s, founded by Jewish immigrants fleeing an increasingly antipathetic Europe in the 1920s and 30s. The hot dog recipe has been handed down through three generations of Zobler’s head chef’s family. They originally ran a deli on the Lower East Side.
‘It is a 100 year old tradition,’ Zobler says. And, he says, in the current climate tradition is what we need. ‘People are yearning for authenticity and a sense of history.’
Is this an extreme case of chicken soup for the soul? Not only are the names deliciously foreign (kibbitz, challah, rugelach) but the food brims with homeliness. There’s good reason why Beigel Bake is a legend of the post-night out food scene. Chicken soup is known by many as ‘Jewish penicillin’: a cure for all things. And £3 is a small price to pay for that.
Seven of the best places for Jewish food…
Monty’s Deli, 227-229 Hoxton St, London N1 5LG. 020 7729 5737; montys-deli.com
Zobler’s Delicatessen, The Ned, 27 Poultry, London EC2R 8BP. 020 3828 2000; thened.com/restaurants
Ira B’s, 27 Chelwood Dr, Leeds LS8 2AT. 0113 230 2200; ira-bs.co.uk
Aron’s Deli, 19 Chandos Rd, Bristol, BS6 6PG. 0117 973 7165; aronsdeli.co.uk
Harry Morgan, 29-31 St John’s Wood High St, London NW8 7NH. 020 7722 1869; harryms.co.uk
The Good Egg, 93 Stoke Newington Church St, Stoke Newington, London N16 0AS. 020 7682 2120; thegoodeggn16.com
The Pickled Brisket, Unit 11, CARGO 2, Wapping Wharf, BS1 6WE. 07961 123005; thepickledbrisket.co.uk