Moroni Portraits, Quiet Soho & Lunch at The Palomar
The temperature has dropped to freezing in London but a sunny day was forecast so, still in holiday mode, I decided to have a ‘day out’ in central London. I’d heard great things about the Giovanni Battista Moroni exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts and since I’m a Friend and can therefore visit for ‘free’ (I have of course paid an annual subscription, so not exactly free), I thought I’d see it before the exhibition ends on 25 January.
To be honest, I wouldn’t consider myself a great fan of 16th century portraiture but in the end was moved and impressed by these wonderful paintings. Moroni shows such humanity; there’s no stiffness here but a strong realism that has nothing to do with any ‘photographic quality’ technique but a deep sense of the person he’s painting. The portraits are hugely engaging and at times movingly tender.
When I emerged from the gallery it was a little early for lunch. It was amazingly quiet everywhere, although I did avoid the main shopping areas like Oxford Street and just walked along Piccadilly and cut through to the bottom end of Regent’s Street and into Soho.
Many places were closed until January, but I enjoyed a rather nostalgic trip along Old Compton Street …
… then along Greek Street past The Gay Hussar, a wonderful Hungarian restaurant at the top end near Soho Square where in my full-time working days as an editor I often lunched with agents and authors …
… down to Maison Bertaux at the bottom end of the street near Shaftesbury Avenue where as a child I was often taken for breakfast by my parents …
I then crossed Shaftesbury Avenue and headed down the south part of Rupert Street to The Palomar Restaurant …
The Palomar is one of the hottest places to eat in London at the moment. I first heard about it from my friend Linda when she was visiting from Spain in late November. We tried to eat there but it was fully booked for the dining room at the back and we didn’t fancy queuing for a seat at the bar as we had quite a busy day planned. With its popularity in mind, I thought it best to arrive for an early lunch and went in just before 12.30. It was fairly quiet at this time – though in general London was quiet in these days between Christmas and New Year, so perhaps not to be counted on! The welcome was so warm and friendly in the nicest of ways and I was asked if I was happy to sit at the bar. The bar was just what I wanted on my own for lunch remembering my great experience at Bocca di Lupo when I did just the same thing.
Those empty seats in the photo above would fill up before I left about an hour later. I had a fantastic view of the chefs at work right in front of me.
The Palomar serves the food of modern-day Jerusalem; food influenced by southern Spain, north Africa and the Levant. This is food close to my heart, even though I’ve never travelled to Jerusalem. Like the fattoush I made yesterday, the labneh I sometimes make, my love of Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem book, the much-watched DVD of his TV documentary Jerusalem on a Plate, I feel drawn to cook this kind of food often and really hope some day I’ll make it to Israel to taste it there. But surely lunching at The Palomar has to be the next best thing.
The waitress was so helpful. Water was brought, an order for a glass of prosecco taken; aid was given in my choice of food. It was really hard to choose – I wanted everything! But it was lunchtime and I rarely eat a big meal during the day so I didn’t want anything too heavy. After I’d made my decisions, a kind of amuse-bouche arrived in the shape of some sweet potato crisps with a wonderful dip made from yogurt and a watercress pesto. Soon my starter was put before me: Mini Polenta Jerusalem Style.
I’d had to ask what ‘Jerusalem style’ was. The dish – beautifully presented – had a rich mound of creamy polenta at the bottom. On top of this was a mushroom ragout, some asparagus and shavings of Parmesan on top. It was glorious and wonderfully comforting after coming in from the freezing weather outside. For my main, I’d chosen Shakshukit – a deconstructed kebab with minced meat, yogurt, tahini, the ‘Four Tops’ and Yaeli’s pita.
A base of tahini and yogurt was spread across and round the base of the dish. On top of this lay a mix of lamb and beef mince with pine nuts; the four toppings were harissa, watercress pesto, Greek yogurt and Kalamata olive tapenade. More tahini was drizzled across the top. It was the most miraculous dish. The meat was so tender and tasted delicious; each of the four toppings offering a variety of tastes. The warm, freshly made pita was soft and light and perfect for mopping up at the end. I took it as slowly as I could; this was a dish to savour; this was a dish full of love.
Now only a greedy woman could want dessert at lunchtime! I plead guilty. The thing is, I actually rarely eat dessert let alone at lunchtime, but the food had been so marvellous I just couldn’t resist. And the portions had been fairly small – enough, but not huge. So I had room. Most definitely I had room for dessert! Oh, but to have to choose again. How could I choose! It was so tempting to try Labneh ice cream with sumac crumble and brazil nut tuile. There were more temptations but in the end I went for Malabi – a rose-scented milk pudding, with raspberry coulis, coconut meringues, pistachio crunch, fresh raspberries and kataifi.
This was ambrosia – food of the gods. I savoured each little bit: the delicately scented milk pudding that could have easily have been overwhelmed by rose but was perfectly judged; the melt-in-the-mouth crispness of the little coconut meringues; the wonderful pistachio crunch; the freshness of the raspberries. Oh wow! Apparently I looked as overcome with delight as I felt. The lovely Israeli woman sitting next to me, Sasha, commented that she watched me as I took my first taste and there was a pause – life stood still briefly as I enjoyed this gorgeous moment. She couldn’t resist bending towards me and asking about it. Then she and I talked for a while. We talked food, life and that I should go to Tel Aviv, which is where she comes from, if I want to see Israel and eat well. This unexpected and fun conversation was a bonus on top of a wonderful meal. I finished with an excellent espresso then paid my bill and slowly made my way back to Waterloo station and home. What a brilliant day it had been – and here in London, right on my doorstep!
For more about The Palomar visit: www.thepalomar.co.uk