The Palomar was more than just another restaurant when it surfaced in 2014: it became London’s first contemporary Israeli restaurant, and arguably the first to put Middle Eastern food on the map, except for perhaps Ottolenghi.
But even for London’s best restaurants, the need to maintain relevance in an everchanging food scene can eventually become overwhelming. And for the past few years there have been rumours that The Palomar’s star had begun to fade.
Omri McNabb, an Israeli-born chef with a career spent in the bustling restaurants of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – by way of some time spent in Berlin – is Palomar’s new head chef. He’s the man brought in to ensure the restaurant that captured Londoners’ attention – by offering them a cuisine they didn’t even know they wanted – maintains its cool beyond the five-year mark
He’s keen not to point any fingers but says that when he first tried The Palomar earlier this year, “it was like someone tried to cook Jerusalem style but didn’t really succeed.”
McNabb hopes his fresh approach will help transition the restaurant from trend-driven novelty to London mainstay. One idea he has is to involve his classical European training in dishes.
“All my life I have cooked high quality and fresh Jerusalem-style food. So it was very interesting for me to cook Jerusalem-style dishes but with more of a French and Italian touch,” he tells Food Spark.
“I use the technique of the French in terms of how the food looks on the plate, and sometimes how we cook. We have a new pork belly dish which we make the French way by making it very simple, but cooking it for longer. The Tel Aviv way is to do things quickly – and sometimes the quick and easy way is more tasty – but I know how to use the French and Italian touch to improve the taste and look on other occasions.
“I prefer to always mix everything, taking French and Israeli cuisines and mixing them together to end up with something between both cuisines.”
As well as serving food with an experimental touch, McNabb is keen to ensure his food doesn’t leave guests hungry, another criticism of the restaurant of late.
“I’m adding new sharing dishes while also making them bigger,” he says. “When I arrived, most of the dishes were a little bit small, so I’m changing how they look.”
Kubaneh bread and coconut cauliflower steak
McNabb has spent two months trying to understand all the basics of the recipes at The Palomar
“I’m thinking about adding more flavour, trying to make the food more seasonal,” he explains. “However much I can push, I push for change. It’s very hard work because The Palomar is very busy: every night we have 100-plus covers, so it’s hard to keep the menu in season and push it to be better while keeping the basic level very high.”
Which dishes is McNabb most proud of creating so far? The evolution of the kubaneh bread, which is designed to be pulled apart, is a key talking point.
“I changed the basics of the recipe, it’s a little bit less sweet. We use two kinds of flavour to make it more fluffy inside,” he reveals.
He’s also keen to highlight a new dessert named White City (in ode to Tel Aviv), which has white chocolate, cardamom, fresh labneh made in-house, orange marmalade and fresh nuts.
And, like everyone else at the moment, he has his own version of the cauliflower steak.
“We serve almost the whole piece of the cauliflower, which we blanche in coconut milk with cumin and we serve with green tahini, so it’s a vegan dish, everybody likes it.”
The signature falafel has changed too.
“I cook it with chickpeas, green chilli and onion. Before that there was a different recipe with gluten, but falafel isn’t really about gluten,” he says. “It’s more nice and airy inside without, and not so dry.”
McNabb says he wants to push The Palomar to be more interesting, “not just for the British customer or the American customer – for the Israeli customer too.”
Attempting to teach Israelis something new about their own cuisine may be the restaurant’s bravest move yet.