Lilienblum is the fourth restaurant that Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani has opened in London in just under a year. The City Road restaurant is the first ‘full service’ venue in the UK, following the success of three branches of his pita chain Miznon (meaning kiosk in Hebrew) here.
The simplicity of Shani’s cooking techniques belie his culinary genius. He likes to keep things simple, using limited seasoning and herbs, so as to let the natural flavours of the ingredients shine through. He is, after all, the man who originally brought us the whole roasted cauliflower – simply boiled, then cooked in the oven with just olive oil and salt. He explains his rationale: “If I will cook something with tomato, it will carry all the information of that original tomato. I swear to it that nothing will be changed; the texture will remain, the flavours, the aromas, the shapes, so when you are eating my food, it looks very simple [but], it’s not simple. I just represent the tomato in the way it wants to be [represented].”
It was Shani’s vegan grandfather who first got him interested in food, taking him to markets and vineyards. But when he decided he wanted to cook he knew nothing about it. When he was in the Israeli navy he “invented a terrible thing – a chicken dish cooked with black coffee where the coffee was glued to the skin. I saw that people were opening their windows [in the ship] and throwing the chicken out!” he recalls. He refined the recipe and says that it is now the “most traditional” dish the navy serves.
By 1989 he had perfected enough recipes to open his first restaurant, Oceanus, in his hometown of Jerusalem.
At Lilienblum, named after the Tel Aviv street that is home to Shani’s restaurant North Abraxas, there are other expert hands at work. Head chef Oren King (also Israeli) has worked at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Roka and Hide and general manager Kitty Sparks has been at Fifteen and Aquavit. While the concept is more elevated than at some of his other eateries, in true Eyal Shani style the ethos is laid back, with sharing platters knocked up in an open kitchen. The menu is based around the main ingredients – ‘breads’, ‘vegetable creatures’, ‘cow and lamb fed in flowered fields’, with humourous commentary such as ‘it’s a very bad idea to eat this (bruschetta), but there will be no regrets’; hummus is served ‘just the way we like it’; while asparagus is ‘exemplarily arranged inside a paper envelope’.
It would be fair to say that tomatoes play a big role in Shani’s world and indeed at Lilienblum they are used as paperweights to hold the brown paper tablecloths (a Shani trademark) in place . At his HaSalon restaurant in Tel Aviv, he perfected the art of fine dining, but was castigated for serving a $24 tomato.
“People in Israel admired me and hated me because they pay so much money for my food,” he says, explaining that he didn’t benefit from the high prices as he paid for the most expensive ingredients and his chefs.
High prices do not appear to deter diners in London, and with a reputation this good plus a growing interest in Middle Eastern cooing Shani’s culinary equivalent of green fingers will likely be working their magic here for a long time to come.
What made you want to open restaurants in London?
The English are very curious people who have travelled the world and as a result many cultures have been absorbed into its own. I believe in the curiosity and that we will attract people to Lilienblum because they consider Israel to be from the East and English people are attracted to things from the East.
What’s different about Lilienblum?
Lilienblum at the moment is like a newborn baby and it’s an opportunity. In the minute that a baby is born you can see its character, its smile, the way it looks at things, the feelings it has. I think that there is a big contrast between the sunny food that we create at Lilienblum and surrounding of the area. It is a full-service restaurant unlike my three Miznon venues which are more casual
Why do you want to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at Lilienblum?
Because when you celebrate it in Israel everyone is celebrating it. But when you celebrate it outside of Israel someone is framing it for you. A different culture is framing your own culture and it’s a really beautiful position to be in.
Favourite restaurant in London?
River Cafe. I have loved it for decades and it’s made special because of Ruthie (Rogers). It is her home and you can feel that which makes it extra special. I think it’s outstanding.
Favourite thing to do in London:
I love to walk the streets because you just never know what is going to be around the next corner.
How does it feel being a Jew in London?
I feel like there are a lot of Jewish people in London so I never feel alone. I feel like English people are completely open to any religions and culture. England is blessed with such such a large variety of people. It’s the same when I do menus. I need to absorb so many new ideas, ingredients and cultures into my food because without moving ahead I cannot continue.
What chefs inspire you?
Raymond Blanc. He was the first chef who inspired my creation. He is very different to me and he is very classic but he know how to put his own character inside his food. He has a great restaurant. There are a lot of chefs that inspire me but my first answer is Raymond Blanc.
Wine or cocktails? Wine
Hummus or Labneh? Hummus
Challah or Pita? Tough but pita
Beach or Skiing? Beach
Rosh Hashanah or Passover? Passover
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