Since coming to London 15 years ago, Israeli husband-and-wife team Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich have carved a niche within mid-range dining, offering a nostalgic experience to their clientele.
By NADINE WOJAKOVSKIPublished: JANUARY 9, 2020 14:35Advertisement
If you walk past Honey & Co’s diner in Fitzrovia, Central London, on a cold, dark winter’s evening, you may be lucky enough to feast your eyes on a table of customers enjoying a colorful meze. The table in the cozy restaurant is filled with culinary sharing plates such as spiced cinnamon falafel, creamy hummus, beetroot sabzi, poached quince and labaneh, each dish tastefully enhanced with colorful additions such as pomegranates, pine nuts, honeyed hazelnuts, lambs lettuce and currants.These are the “winter” creations of Israeli husband-and-wife team Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich. Since coming to London 15 years ago, they have carved a niche within mid-range dining, offering a nostalgic experience to their diverse clientele.Itamar Srulovich was born in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood and moved to Tel Aviv after the army to pursue his dream of becoming a “backgammon champion beach bum.” But fate had other plans when, instead, he fell into the culinary profession.He first worked in a kitchen in Eilat as a teenager, and after the army he joined Orna & Ella restaurant in Tel Aviv, where he learned the tricks of the trade on the job. In contrast, his wife Sarit moved to London to study at a culinary school before working in a Michelin-star restaurant. They met and married in Israel before moving to London. In London, Sruolovich cooked in the Oxo tower and headed Ottolenghi’s Kitchen before setting up the Honey & Co chain with his wife in 2012.The couple has seen first-hand the huge shift in the London dining experience, which has made their work both challenging and very exciting.“When we moved here 15 years ago, everyone used to eat triangular packets of sandwiches. Now people are looking for something different: food that someone has just prepared for you, rather than an anonymous box in a fridge – which was really depressing.”At one end of the spectrum was the triangular sandwich and at the other end was high-end dining. Srulovich observed that there was not that much in the middle.“In the past 10 years we have seen the quality of midrange dining exploding. Good eating-out is now available to most budgets.”By contrast, he says, in Israel it’s often the opposite.“The more money you spend, the less likely you are going to have a good meal. In Israel, the best meal is the workers restaurant by the bus station, or falafel and pita, or burekas from a bakery. These foods can be amazingly delicious, fresh, cheap and ‘of the place.’ However, a fancy restaurant serving gnocchi may make you disappointed.”Israel has been a trailblazer for the great dining experience, with many countries getting in on the act only in recent years. Since coming to London, the Jerusalemite has come to realize how intrinsically unique food is within Israeli society, especially as it is deeply grounded in the melting pot of history, tradition and culture of the state. Above all, as Israel is a young country, it is still exploring its cuisine. Israeli chefs allow themselves to have the freedom and confidence to play with dishes and change them until they look and taste right.“FOOD IS SUCH a huge deal in every Israeli gathering, it’s ingrained in our psyche. The produce and food is excellent and diverse,” observes Srulovich. Moreover, he says Israelis are not just entrepreneurial, but put food on the table to tell an “interesting story.”“They are not scared to create business and get it done. It’s not just the taste but the experience. It’s a package.”“This industry is called hospitality, but a lot of places are not very hospitable,” he concedes. “It’s very important that they have a good time and enjoy themselves.” The fact is, says the chef, that there is no traditional food that is not delicious. But beyond the indelible taste is the manner in which it is created. It is about the “story” that is being told once it hits the table.“We took our chefs to Israel to cook with families that have been cooking the same thing for generations. We wanted to show them that there’s a history to what they’re making. It’s deeply grounded in tradition.”His formula is to create “simple and clean flavors” inspired by aesthetics found in Japanese cuisine. Israel remains a strong influence for the couple, especially through the use of fruit, vegetable and herbs. Beyond the taste, the “experience” is critical. Nostalgia, for instance, plays a huge role at Honey & Co, which serves Middle-Eastern food breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not about fancy foods, but rather evoking memories through “homey” food: the objective is to create an experience reminiscent of a home rather than a restaurant. Proud of their Jewish roots, the duo serves chocolate and cinnamon babka, and holiday specialties like donuts for Hanukkah and hamentashen at Purim time. The best compliment for the chefs is when a customer tells them a certain dish reminds them of home or of their childhood.Despite living in London for so many years, Srulovich still tries to capture the spirit of his Yemenite roots, fearing he may be the last link to these cooking traditions. At the same time, he is also looking constantly forward, very much drawn to Israel’s incredible culinary scene. It is striking this delicate balance that makes the Honey & Co offering so unique.In 2016, they opened their deli plus the Honey & Smoke Grill House. This is loosely based on an Israeli, Turkish and Jordanian Middle Eastern-type grill house, offering a more buzzy night out. They also write a weekly column for the Financial Times weekend magazine and are authors of cookbooks. Their latest – At Home – is all about the food they cook in their own kitchen and about life outside of work. One notable, straightforward recipe is the sweet, sour and savory roasted chicken in plums and sweet spice.“It’s a matter of confidence,” offers the chef. “Food naturally looks good. It’s all in the beautiful colors. The less you interfere the better. The more you cook the easier it becomes. It’s about getting to know what you like. It’s a very personal thing.”As far as signature dishes go, they both agree, that it’s falafel and tahini, lamb shwarma, chicken cooked in pomegranate and minced lamb kofta among others. But the dish for which they’re most famous for is the cheesecake, made with honey and feta and served on semolina noodle (kadaif) pastry.On a personal level, the dish that defines Srulovich’s childhood is fatut, which he says is the Yemeni equivalent of carbonara, which his grandmother used to make for breakfast. It’s bread or crackers dipped in water, fried in “tons” of butter and then mixed in raw egg and salt.Given that he never planned to be a chef, success has been beyond his wildest dreams. This is in part due to the fact that he recognizes that running a business is no less creative than running a kitchen, as you need to think on your feet all the time.“Maybe less romantic, but no less creative.”In their free time, the duo enjoy eating out and reading new cookbooks, which are often stacked high on their bedside tables. And when there is food left over in their diner they take their work home with them in a takeaway container, enjoying the fruits of their labor. Life outside work is really one and the same.“This is our world. You can’t not be inspired. We love it.”Chicken in Plums and Sweet SpiceFrom Honey & Co At Home (Pavilion)Makes 6 to 8 skin-on chicken thighs, depending on size.For the marinade:2 plums, quartered and stones removed1 tsp. whole coriander seeds1 tsp. whole fennel seeds1 tsp. salt¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper1 clove of garlic, peeled1 Tbsp. demerara sugar3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar2 Tbsp. olive oilFor the roasting tray:2–3 sticks of celery, cut in 5 cm / 2 inch pieces1 onion, peeled and cut into wedges6 cloves of garlic, unpeeled8–10 plums, quartered and stones removedsea salt and freshly ground black pepper1 Tbsp. demerara sugar a few sprigs of tarragon to garnishMake the marinade by blitzing everything together in a food processor until you have a smooth purée. Pour the marinade over the chicken thighs and mix well to make sure they are evenly coated. Cover and place in the fridge to marinate: a couple of hours will do the trick but you can leave it for up to 24 hours.Heat your oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 7. Place the celery, onion, garlic and half the plum quarters in a large roasting tray. Top with the chicken thighs, skin-side up, and pour any remaining marinade over the chicken. Season with some salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, then remove the tray and baste everything well with the juices that have formed at the bottom.Reduce the temperature to 200°C/180˚C fan/gas mark 6 and return the chicken to the oven for a further 10 minutes before adding the remaining plum quarters. Sprinkle with the sugar and roast for a final 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, baste again and garnish with a few tarragon sprigs before serving.
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