28 Jun 2014
The Palomar, a lesson in schmoozing
This article also appeared in the Financial Times.
To schmooze, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means 'to talk intimately', and its origins lie in the late 19th century Yiddish word shmuesn, 'to chat'. My grandparents, who spoke this now almost forgotten language, would certainly not recognise its relevance today as to how best to look after a customer in a restaurant.
But this style of communication is what every good receptionist or maitre d' ought to employ as they escort you to a table. It is the approach a good waitress or a knowledgeable sommelier takes in describing why you should choose one main course rather than another or a specific bottle of wine. Successfully schmoozed, every customer is more likely to return.
I watched an ace practitioner in this art of schmoozing at work as we sat at the back of The Palomar restaurant that has just opened in a hitherto dreary stretch of Rupert Street, Soho, in the heart of London's theatreland.
The schmoozer in question was Yossi Elad, one of the founders alongside Uri Navon and Asaf Granit of the highly successful Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem. They have recently brought their culinary expertise into a partnership with Layo Paskin, a former nightclub owner.
When we sat down, Elad, dressed in a white chef's jacket, had his arm round one of the table of four next to us, who, in turn, had poured him a glass from their bottle of red wine. Elad subsequently introduced these customers to the table of eight next to them, a group of chefs from the River Café in west London. As he saw me being served my glass of red wine, he came over, smiled and we raised our respective glasses, both of us saying 'L'Chaim', the Jewish toast 'to life'.
Half an hour later, Elad was sitting alongside a table of three that had just walked in. But his interest in his customers led him to talk to yet another couple beside them and within minutes he was leading the woman from this table right across the restaurant to meet the team from the River Café. It transpired that she was going there the following week for the first time for her birthday and would now receive an even warmer welcome.
Whether creating an atmosphere in which Elad, a chef for the past 30 years, can show off these interpersonal skills was at the back of the designers' collective mind is not clear but they certainly could not have created a space that feels more in keeping with Soho.
Inside the narrow frontage there is a counter on the right, manned by bearded chefs in trilbies and, I noted once they stepped out to deliver their plates of seafood, an obvious penchant for colourful footwear. Directly opposite is a long open kitchen in front of which are 16 counter seats leaving just enough space for half a dozen customers behind them to stand, drink and add to the noise level. Beyond is the far calmer restaurant of a dozen tables with a large ceiling window that captures the last rays of the evening.
The quality of the light here may be very different from that in Jerusalem but that does not deter this obviously talented trio from writing a menu that sparkles like the eastern Mediterranean in two most unusual aspects.
The first is the section in the top right hand corner that is headed TEAM OF THE DAY and lists all those on duty. It is broken down into two, beginning with Tomer No 1 the Head Chef, Tomer No 2, someone called Kip Kip, and ending with Walid, presumably a kitchen porter, before listing those from Stepanka to Izzi who form the team 'Serving you'. This is information that is comforting for the customer and a morale booster for the staff.
The rest, and more edible side, of the menu sparkles because the chefs very obviously consider themselves completely unfettered by religion, nationality or cooking technique. They may be Jewish but there's shellfish here, either as Moroccan oysters (well, British by origin, but served with coriander, lemon zest and Arisa oil). They are Israeli, but alongside the mezze and polenta Jerusalem style, there is a Persian oxtail stew (pictured), gilt head bream Moroccan style and mussels cooked to a Kurdish recipe with arak and fennel. And this trio may be talented, modern chefs but they have a very good eye for presentation that includes dishes and trays that look as though they were bought in a souk.
This particular aspect became obvious when Laura, our waitress, delivered a round, lidded tin that contained kubaneh, Yemini pot-baked bread with bowls of tahini and a tomato puree and a dish of Landing Catch raw fish 'Uri style'. This turned out to be six pieces of raw salmon, topped with cured onion and ginger vinaigrette, delivered on a three-layered metal tray that is most widely used to carry sweetmeats alongside a pot of mint tea.
Two main courses, seared scallops with an excellent cured lemon beurre blanc, and a most incongruous combination of a tagine of pork belly, dried apricots and Israeli couscous were highly successful, the dish of sweetbread pastries with aubergine and cumin, less so. Malabi, an Israeli milk pudding with raspberries and candied rose petals, will please anyone with a sweet tooth.
The Palomar will delight anyone who goes out to eat exciting food, to have fun, or simply to be schmoozed.
The Palomar 34 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DN; tel +44 (0)20 7439 8777
Both photos are courtesy of Helen Cathcart/The Palomar.