I got back from my holiday last week to another of life’s crushing milestones: I can no longer fit into my favourite work suit. It’s all downhill from here. And Croatia’s waiting staff had gone to such lengths to stop me eating so much.
You see, in Croatia the customer isn’t always right; he’s usually wrong and he’s probably an idiot and what the hell are you even doing in my restaurant? One woman became apoplectic when I inadvertently tried to order something from the “Monday” section of the menu. On a Wednesday, of all days. “No, no, no, no! No! What are you doing? I don’t have time for this!” she raged, storming off, never to return. Clearly this is an unforgivable faux pas in Croatia and I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my sincerest apologies. I’m such a jerk.
It’s a shame, because when I was allowed to order food, it was mostly very good. Restaurants in Istria on the Croatian coast barely take time to bash their fish on the head before they fling them on the grill, and you can taste it (except for one place called, for reasons I am blissfully ignorant of, Restaurant by Willy, which served-up a shelled langoustine that had been microwaved for so long its claws had wilted). Further inland they do a mean line in pork knuckles and blood sausage.
There’s a problem, though: Istria is famed for its truffles. And boy do they want you to know about it. They put them in everything. Fun fact: in Istria you’re never more than three metres away from a meal that’s been violently drowned in truffle oil. I ordered a steak and it came topped with an inch-thick layer of grated truffle. You can never quite get the taste out of your mouth, so even your cornflakes are tainted. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a truffle in the same way.
Anyway, for my first meal back, I wanted to go somewhere reassuringly expensive, somewhere the waiters would be nice even if I ordered from the wrong part of the menu. New-ish kosher restaurant 1701 seemed to fit the bill. It is appended to the Bevis Marks synagogue (in a sort of fancy conservatory), which is the oldest in the country, located down an alley near Aldgate Tube (when it opened, not coincidentally in 1701, Jews weren’t allowed to build on a main thoroughfare).
It’s a small, 35-cover affair that has a pleasant, peppy atmosphere even when it’s quiet (I went late on a Monday evening). It’s modern, with marble-tiled floors and greenery growing over a canopy above. The menu features Jewish dishes from around the world; a neat idea that still gives Israeli head chef Oren Goldfeld a wide palette to paint with.
Things got off to a good start with quite literally the best bread I’ve ever tasted – dense and doughy with a wafer-thin crust and a sprinkling of anise and onion seeds. To start I went for the pastilla, which is braised lamb neck in phyllo pastry served with parsnip puree. It was outstanding; fine, crumbly pastry dusted with icing sugar, encasing rich, wholesome lamb. It was outshone by the sabich, which was apparently brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews in the 1940s and 50s and consists of miso infused aubergine, mushrooms and slow cooked egg yolk. And however you have been making eggs all your life: it’s wrong. This golden globe had been cooked at 40 degrees for an hour, which makes it both structurally sound and satisfyingly gooey; neither hard nor soft boiled. It’s egg heaven.
For our mains, the waiter recommended three dishes he said really got to the core of 1701’s cuisine, and that I was sure to fall madly in love with (which, by the way, is absolutely the worst thing you can say as it almost guarantees I’ll hate whatever it is I’m supposed to like. I can’t help it; my palate has a problem with authority). I said I’d take all three. The waiter laughed. I didn’t, and we had a slightly awkward moment, after which he checked that I did in fact want to order three mains. I said yes, I would, and explained that we’d share them. El Pye looked vaguely embarrassed and gave the waiter a look that said: “Sorry, he’s always like this.” And the waiter gave her a look back that said: “You poor, poor soul.”
The first main was adafina: ox cheek with a pearl barley side that came wrapped in chicken skin like a sausage. The ox cheek looked like a crystalline rock formation and tasted of Croatia, which is to say it tasted of truffle oil. Lots of big flavours compete for your attention, but I couldn’t get past the truffle, for reasons already explained.
The Friday Night Dinner was a chicken breast so tender it didn’t need to be cut so much as gently shooed apart; it dissolves on your tongue, leaving behind a pleasant zesty aftertaste. The palau kabuli – Afghan-inspired duck breast served on a bed of creamy risotto – was almost as tender as the chicken; technically excellent, but the least inventive of our mains.
To round it off I had the apfelschalet, which was magnificent; roast apple wrapped in that phyllo pastry, served with a rich cassis sorbet and a wobbly “black cherry sphere” that oozed a deep purple lake when prodded.
This is a cracking little restaurant, whether you’re on the lookout for kosher food or not (if you just stumbled in, you could easily fail to notice). It’s not cheap, but then it sells itself as fine dining, so you get prior warning. And I didn’t get shouted at once, which made it by far the most pleasant dining experience I’ve had in weeks.
First published in City A.M.