One of the most famous Israelis in London today is Yotam Ottolenghi.
He is a chef, restaurant owner and food writer whose calling card is the use of simple ingredients and flavors. His style of cuisine is marrying the food of his native Israel to a melting pot of Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean tastes and flavors.
In 2002 he set up the first Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill with his partner, Sami Tamimi. Three more were to follow.
They became must-visit places for foodies because of their authenticity and bold flavors. He backed up his culinary success with a series of innovative cookbooks. The latest of these is a wonderful book titled Jerusalem
, published in 2012 by Ebury Press.
The book compares, discusses and blends the Arab and Jewish cooking of Tamimi and Ottolenghi in the very different Jerusalems, where they both grew up. Tamimi comes from east Jerusalem, and Ottolenghi from west Jerusalem. But in the kitchen and on the page they are together, delighting in the differences and celebrating the tastes of home.
Now they have opened a new restaurant called Nopi (21-22 Warwick Street, London W1). It is open from breakfast to dinner.
The décor is very distinctive. Firstly, there is a great deal of white – as is the case with all Ottolenghi productions – but with the added glitz of marble and brass. Quite striking. The raison d’etre of these two chefs is publicized as “Quality, innovation, freshness and abundance.”
I consider wine to be an ingredient of a good meal; and while it does not have to be at the forefront, where people like me push it, it should always be there as part of the experience. The wines should match the theme of the restaurant, complement the individual dishes, and the eating-out experience is only complete when wine rounds out the trilogy of good friends and quality food.
So I was gratified to learn that Ottolenghi has a wine consultant. He is also an Israeli who has lived a few years in London and, in his quiet, professional way, has managed to earn the respect of those who know him or who have worked with him.
I met Gal Zohar at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. He is 36 years old. Born in Eilat, he spent part of his childhood in France. He first went the barman route, doing a course and starting to work in a restaurant, where he began to get a feel for wine. He traveled to various wine regions for fun. At that stage he wanted to study musicology, the piano and choir conducting. However, the world of wine was too inviting. It was music that remained a hobby and wine that became his profession.
In 2006, Zohar went to London because his wife, Oshrat, was familiar with England from her childhood. There, he was confronted by wine lists and did not understand anything. But out of that initial panic came the urge to study and understand.
Like all good wine people, he had an aptitude for learning in every way possible (on-the-job training, tastings, reading), and he did the Advanced Wine & Spirit Education Trust course and later the diploma. His main textbook, he tells me, was The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson MW.
As assistant sommelier and then sommelier, he found himself at home in the heart of London’s restaurant scene.
The most attractive thing about Zohar, apart from his gentle artistic nature, is his view of the wine world. He does not appreciate wine snobbery. He dislikes wines that have a high alcohol content, preferring elegance; and he despises the trend of heavy bottles that has caught on, as though the size and weight of the bottle has an effect on the quality of the final wine. He believes that wines should be interesting and tell a story, but he can’t stand, or understand, the jargon of tasting notes, which tell you everything about the person’s vocabulary but nothing about the wine itself.
Zohar thinks the job of a sommelier is to preserve the passion of the producer and filter out what is not relevant, so the essence can be passed on to the diner.
His favorite wine-growing region and area of specialty is Italy. He is enchanted with the new Italy, the indigenous varieties and all the different sub-regions. This is a far cry from the Italy of old, which used to read Chianti and Barolo, Soave and Valpolicella.
I asked him if he saw himself as a representative of Israeli wine in a foreign land.
He said no. He said he wanted to do a good job, and it was not a case of doing a job for those back home “and then bringing the friends around.” He went to London to learn. Now he goes back there to teach and pass on the enthusiasm to others.
He believes he has a European palate, which means he likes wines with good acidity and that are refreshing and not overoaked fruit bombs. The Israeli winemakers he most admires are Ya’acov Oriah from Midbar Winery in Arad; Ido Lewinsohn from Recanati and the Lewinsohn Winery in Hod Hasharon; Eran Pick from Tzora Vineyards; Gaby Sadan from Shvo Vineyards; and Golan Flam from Flam Winery.
He says with a good wine, it is difficult to separate the person from the wines.
He picks out for me a few of his favorite Israeli whites: Flam White, an unoaked Sauvignon Chardonnay blend; Shvo Chenin Blanc (not kosher); Sea Horse James (not kosher); another Chenin Blanc; and Lewinsohn Garage de Papa White (not kosher), a 100% Chardonnay. As far as red wines are concerned, he loves the entry-level Tzora wine, the Judean Hills, the Flam Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Vitkin Carignan (not kosher) and a Dalton Syrah Petite Sirah, a special edition wine produced by the Upper Galilee winery.
On his return to Israel, Zohar taught a class at Ramat Gan’s Wine Academy, which he enjoyed. He also consults for caterer Ran Shmueli over his new restaurant, which is opening in August. He has enjoyed sharing in the making of special edition wines with some of his winemaking friends such as Ya’acov Oriah, Ido Lewinsohn and Na’ama Sorkin, from Dalton.
Then he will stop off in England again, to be a judge in the International Wine Challenge. This is the largest wine-tasting competition in the world. The judges are made up of wine professionals from around the globe. It is a great honor for Zohar to be one of them.
Back to the restaurant. At Nopi, Zohar has created a wine list that shows quality, innovation and freshness. The list is interesting and simple, and the wines are all drinkable now. The list is thankfully short, but there is an adequate selection for anyone looking for an inexpensive glass or something special. In his antipathy for standard wine lists, Zohar is also innovative, categorizing some wines under the heading “Mountain and Volcanic” wines.
Among the more familiar wine regions, there are also wines from Campania, Savoie, Jura, Slovenia – and even from Sussex, England. Plenty for the curious. Slightly lacking, in my view, are any representative from the Eastern Mediterranean, say from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon…or dare I say it, Israel; but when the owner-chef and wine consultant are from Israel, maybe one Israeli wine, in addition, would be too much of a good thing! We had an enjoyable conversation. Zohar only upset me when he said he was an Arsenal supporter, but I will get over it (I support their North London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur).
We ended our talk when I asked him to distill our conversation into a sentence and tell me what a good wine was.
“The sign of a good wine”, he said, “is an empty bottle.”
It is as simple as that! Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.