25 Catherine Street, WC2B 5JS Tel: 020 7240 2078, mishkins.co.uk
Cost per person without wine: £30
HAVING entrenched himself as London’s hippest restaurateur with Polpo, Spuntino and co, Russell Norman has sallied into new and more dangerous territory: “a kind of Jewish deli with cocktails”. Sure, everyone – including Norman – loves a bagel and lox and a great Reuben sandwich. But if the Polpo family cherry picked, then London-ified various strains of Italian cookery, it didn’t thumb its nose at Catholicism while doing it. Mishkin’s, taking what’s cute and hip and tasty from the New York/Jewish style of cooking, flagrantly flouts the basic laws of kashrut (kosher cooking). It doesn’t get less kosher than pig and one of the menu’s highlights is a pork hotdog. The only Jewishness that will feel at home in Mishkin’s, then, is of the hipster – and certainly non-observant – variety.
Well, maybe that’s fine. After all, London’s orthodox community has Golders Green and Stamford Hill, as well as more central places to eat kosher (with varying levels of strictness). As for those who keep kosher but aren’t otherwise wildly religious, well – perhaps they can stick to the latkes and eel or cod cheek popcorn (of which more later). To make a restaurant (or even a home kitchen) properly kosher is a complex, rather massive enterprise – it’s simply not Norman’s bag, and shouldn’t be.
But Norman doesn’t just take the Jewish hotdog and make it pork. He also borrows from the Ukrainian pogroms of 1919 to add to the restaurant’s story – a cynic might say the brand. E Mishkin, you see, is a fictional character who flees the death and destruction of his people in October 1919, and it’s the description of the bowl of thin soup and bread he eats before beginning his journey that evokes the warmth and nostalgia of the cuisine served here. Call me po-faced, but invoking a pogrom to make your pork sausage-serving Covent Garden Jew-ish restaurant extra cool seems a bit, erm, odd.
But having aired these reservations, I can get on with the main point of Mishkin’s, which is the food and the atmosphere. I found the latter too studiedly diner-hip – the light is so dim you can barely see the menu, let alone what you’re eating. You certainly couldn’t read a book (a paper book, that is), while waiting for your dinner date. The crowd felt pretty young (early-mid 20s) – or maybe that was just the impression I got from a somewhat dappy, wide-eyed set of waiters, who – with their blonde hair and blue eyes and English accents – seemed the last people on earth destined to serve lox and meatloaf in a Jewish deli. They didn’t seem very confident recommending dishes, poor things, and I’d dread to see them confronted by a group of fractious New Yorkers of the faith.
The three of us were tucked away from the hustle, put in a dark cloistered booth at the back which is totally separate and very intimate. A party of four would fit perfectly and a date for two in here would almost certainly end with a shared cab home. Your parents wouldn’t like it, though: they’d object to what is essentially dining in a dark closet.
The food is delicious in an incredibly rich and fattening way. Eat one bite too many and you might explode. Now, like Italians, Jews can be extremely touchy about recipes. Almost certainly, the corned beef, borscht, meatloaf, latkes, shmaltz herring, chopped liver and so on won’t be quite “like how grandma used to make it”. Well, having grown up in Boston instead of New York, having always hated chopped liver, and lacking both a grandmother and a mother who cooked traditional European Jewish cuisine (my Jewish granny preferred bratwurst from her native Germany) – I came to Mishkin’s with an open mind.
It paid off, for I instantly fell in love with the menu and the way it throws everything at you; every mixture of carb, fat, fish, meat, sauce, sourness, cream, sugar and spice. The meatloaf came in a cute little tin and its sweet-spicy mince yielded a soft-boiled egg inside. Yummy. The apply pork sausage – recommended by Norman himself – was up to American standards (good porcine fatty twang, good onions) though the roll was dry. Whitefish and spinach knish with parsley liquor from the “all day supper” menu were squoodgy, moreish fish cakes (I couldn’t discern parsley or liquor); and latkes with smoked eel, apple sauce and soured cream was a delightfully busy, amusing plate. Codcheek popcorn sounds crazier and better than it is – it’s basically bits of fried fish in a basket, but macaroni cheese (more American than Jewish, certainly) was a gloopy treasure chest of tangy richness. One of my favourite dishes was cauliflower and caraway slaw – an earthy mound of rooty veg soaked in zingy juices, a necessary counterpoint to the spread of heart attack dishes elsewhere. Desserts would have caused serious digestive problems, so I’ll leave the bananas foster, chocolate cookie and so on, to you.
Do I recommend Mishkin’s? If you like obesity-inducing food and a youthful, by-the-numbers liveliness, absolutely. Previous exposure to Jewish food doesn’t matter one bit – this is first and foremost American comfort nosh, and it might well be that the less Jewish your tastes (and your sensitivities), the better.