The Mark Ogus of today looks quite similar to the Nicholas Lander of 1981.
Both of us are tall, good looking (in my opinion, anyway), and both of us have, or had in my case, a full head of hair. Both of us are thin, wear glasses and have just opened restaurants. And both of us are, or were, looking slightly the worse for wear, a situation compounded by the colour of the walls in our respective restaurants – because both L'Escargot in my case and Monty's Deli in Mark's today, have pale green walls which reflect our respective pallor.
In my case this was self-inflicted as I agreed to the colour scheme suggested by my friend and designer Tom Brent. In Mark's case this has been accidental, the result of his taking over a ground-floor site, together with his partner and chef Owen Barratt, that was a bakery on Hoxton Street on which the initials RG are still prominent. By the front door, a 'bun divider' – a machine whose role is self evident – lends character to the room and is probably too heavy to move anyway.
Aside from that, Monty's Deli and L'Escargot have little in common. I fell into restaurants quite suddenly and quite by accident whereas for Mark and Owen, the opening of their first 'bricks and mortar' restaurant marks the end of an already long journey. It is just over five years since they started trading as a pop-up on Saturdays and Sundays, initially on Maltby Street and then round the corner on Druid Street in Bermondsey.
There they honed their skills, smoking brisket for salt-beef sandwiches and pastrami in emulation of the quality of the meat that they remember from the Jewish delicatessens of their youth. In this they were highly successful but were limited by the lack of a permanent home. They started to look for one and, having found the site at 227 Hoxton Street, opposite a colourful men's hairdressers called Betta Luks, embarked on a journey which, as Mark explained it to me, sounded all too familiar.
They began by raising money from friends via Kickstarter. Offering naming rights on tables and promises of cooking Friday night suppers in sponsors' homes took them some of the way there. But quite how much remained to be done was brought home to Mark when, with £250,000 in the kitty, he was informed by his designers that the builders' initial quote was £420,000.
Thanks to their good friends Paul and Josh Katz (of Berber & Q fame) they were now becoming more professional and an introduction to an M&A lawyer with a great love of food – as well as the promise that they would deliver the 'Sistine Chapel of all bagels' - finally bridged the gap. The lease was signed on 16 December, work began in mid January, and the doors finally opened at the end of April.
In a sentiment that resonated with me, and will do with most young restaurateurs, Mark confessed that 'the whole process has taken a few years off my life'.
Monty's Deli has several constituent parts. There is a large L-shaped bar, at the end of which stand the young men who slice the meat and fill the sandwiches, while above them are stacked the logs from the London Log Company which feed the smoker in the kitchen at the back. Down one side of the restaurant are the booths, all now clearly named after their sponsors, while on the other is the all-important take-away section.
Here you can take away a sandwich of your choice, purchase bagels (plain, sesame or poppy seed), or buy cinnamon and walnut or chocolate rugelach, that extremely sweet Israeli crescent-shaped pastry that may be the antecedent of the croissant. Or if you are there on a Friday you can purchase one of their extremely good chollas – in which case you might bump into a friend of mine who calls in regularly for takeaway sandwiches to feed his friends at their weekly poker event.
It is this flexibility that really distinguishes Monty's from the Jewish delicatessens that Mark and Owen remember and I recall from Bookbinder's in south Didsbury.
Monty's is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday and for brunch on Sunday, currently its busiest service. It is a cool place to hang out in, thanks to Mark's extremely stylish, in the Hoxton sense, branding of white lettering on the staff's black T shirts and the music, a combination of very cool 1950s and 1960s music from Bob Dylan to Meshugganah Mambo (Mark's daughter with his partner, the writer Eva Wiseman, is called Ramona). The signage throughout is clear and distinctive.
There is a clear delineation of duty between Mark the restaurateur and Owen in the kitchen, who over time has learnt the dark arts of smoking meat (the kitchen now handles 200-300 kilos of brisket a week). Owen sources the best rye bread for his sandwiches, in collaboration with Adrian Maccelari the general manager of Sally Clarke's bakery in north Kensington. Their cucumbers are very good and their egg and onion salad is the best I can remember.
So, what's not to like? In my opinion, absolutely nothing, although I feel that Monty's Deli may take a little longer than it should to establish itself. Its sandwiches, starting at £8 for a 'mensch', salt beef or pastrami on rye, once topped up with a salad and a drink, will not leave much change from £15. And that is including a smidgeon of fat in the sandwich, an element that not only gives the sandwich more flavour but was one of the factors that led to the closure of many salt-beef places in the 1990s when customers started asking for salt-beef sandwiches without fat and prices had to go up as a result. The spice that currently makes any type of Asian food so attractive may be missing, but the 'chrain', the mixture of beetroot and horseradish that they make themselves, should make up for this.
I am sure that Monty's Deli will thrive. It is not just that it represents for me the food of my Jewish youth but, far more importantly, it represents the heartfelt vision, and appetite, of two brave young men.
Good luck Mark and Owen and good luck to Monty's Deli.
Monty's Deli, 227 Hoxton Street, London N1 5LG 020 7729 5737