(photo credit: Courtesy)
The last time I met with former British-Israeli Master Chef contestant Josh Steele, he surprised me by preparing a sophisticated and rich version of the simple British dish cauliflower cheese.
He informed me then that he had recently become a partner at a kosher restaurant called Soyo on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street and was working on a “funky new menu.” When he invited me to check out Soyo’s revamped menu over Succot, I was intrigued to see what other twists he had conjured up for the restaurant’s dishes.
Soyo was originally a London-based café. The owners decided to open a branch in Jerusalem and, adapting it to the local clientele, established an English-style café with Israeli influences.
The design of Soyo is understated, café style, with indoor and outdoor sections. Steele says the restaurant aims to offer healthy kosher options and notes that among the wide clientele of regulars it attracts are yeshiva boys seeking non-greasy food.
The menu offers a mixture of British and Israeli favorites, from breakfast through to dinner, such as English scones, English breakfast and tea or Israeli breakfast and shakshouka for the first meal of the day, as well as a variety of salads (including the option to make your own salad), sandwiches, crepes, pasta, fish and other main courses. It also takes into consideration various dietary requirements for vegan or gluten-free customers.
My dining partner and I decided to trust Steele’s recommendations and sample dishes we may not have opted for otherwise. To start, we tried lightly scorched watermelon and fennel, served with feta cheese and parsley (NIS 32). This warm version of the classic Israeli snack of watermelon and salty cheese was surprisingly good. I had never eaten warm watermelon before and would likely not have ordered it had Steele not suggested it, and I was glad he did.
To drink, I sampled the strawberry berry smoothie. It was packed with berries, strawberries and mango, elegantly presented in a cocktail glass (NIS 24). It was tasty and flavorful, but I wouldn’t recommend it with a three- course meal, since it is rather filling.
For the main event I chose the vegan paella (NIS 49), while my dining companion selected the sea bass with creamed peas (NIS 69). I was served an enormous plate of sizzling hot al dente wild rice with porcini mushrooms, sweet potato, shallots, sun dried tomatoes and tofu cubes, flavored with coconut milk, ginger, curry and coriander. It was topped with a sprinkling of beer yeast, which gave it a creamy consistency without using dairy. The dish was hearty, bursting with flavor and subtly spicy.
My companion, however, who is averse to tofu, was not won over when I passed him my plate and offered him a taste, finding the combination of herbs, spices and flavors overwhelming. He was keen to quickly switch back dishes, happy with Steele’s healthy play on the traditional British fish, chips and mushy peas. This comprised a superbly cooked sea bass fillet sautéed in butter and olive oil and sprinkled with lemon, accompanied by roasted potatoes and mashed peas like I had never tasted before, in a creamy basil- flavored sauce.
The portions at Soyo are extremely generous, and I was bursting at the seams before I was close to finishing my meal. Still, we accepted the offer to sample a dessert. We were certainly not disappointed by the strawberries and cream crepe (NIS 32) that we selected from the crepe menu, accompanied by mint tea (NIS 12) and an espresso (NIS 8) from Soyo’s own coffee selection. Deliciously sweet and creamy, filled with strawberries, white chocolate and accompanied by cream, this dessert packed the perfect punch to round off the meal. It left us with a craving to return to Soyo and sample the rest of the crepes on the menu, which include both sweet and savory options.
All the dishes at Soyo are elegantly presented, and the vibe of the restaurant is friendly and relaxed.
Steele’s gift is that he takes traditional food and makes it his own, with his unique and creative flair. I was delighted to hear that Afternoon Tea will soon be gracing Soyo’s tables, a treat that British ex-pats sorely miss in Israel. With this new addition to the café, Steele as ever, will surely not fail to surprise his customers with interesting variations on familiar food.The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Soyo Kosher 51 Emek Refaim St., Jerusalem Tel: (02) 623-5421