London

How We Went from Running Nightclubs to a Jerusalem-Inspired Restaurant

“Although the relationship in a nightclub is different to a restaurant, you’re still working to create a mood,” says Zoё Paskin, one half of the team behind The Palomar and The Barbary in London.

by Daisy Meager
03 November 2017, 12:00pm

On the fringes of London's Chinatown, a short walk from the all-you-can-eat buffets and grocery stores with ducks strung up by their necks, you'll find a little slice of Jerusalem.

I've come to The Palomar, which opened in 2014 to rave reviews, to meet owners Layo and Zoё Paskin. The brother-and-sister team are also behind the recently launched Barbary in Covent Garden.

layo-zoe-paskin-the-palomar

Layo and Zoё Paskin, co-owners of London Middle Eastern restaurants The Palomar and The Barbary. All photos by the author.

I might have just had breakfast but as I take a seat in the restaurant, aromas of the Middle East with notes of the Med drift over from the kitchen and my stomach starts rumbling.

However, the Paskins' roots aren't based entirely in food.

READ MORE: Jerusalem's Best Vegetarian Restaurant Doesn't Do Aesthetics

"We had a nightclub in London called The End which we sold in 2009. I continued to DJ and produce while Zoё went to work at London restaurant Hawksmoor," explains Layo. "But then we started to talk about doing a business together again and decided it should be a restaurant."

Zoё adds: "We had a restaurant in AKA, the cocktail bar we also owned, and food had always played a big part in our family life."

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The Palomar kitchen.

As The Palomar chefs behind us prepare for lunch service using ingredients like pomegranate molasses, sumac, and za'atar, Zoё and Layo tell me that Middle Eastern food wasn't always the plan. But a meal in Jerusalem soon changed all that.

"I was doing a gig in Tel Aviv in 2012 and told Zoё she should come out for the weekend," says Layo. "We went to a restaurant called Machneyuda which we'd been to before. And then it really all began with our friend who introduced us to the chefs and said they want to open a restaurant in London."

"Doing Middle Eastern food happened quite serendipitously out of going there and knowing how good the food is," continues Zoё. "That particular encounter took us on a path that we knew instinctively was the right thing to do."

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Pork belly with dried apricots, glazed carrot, and celeriac cream.

I ask whether there were any ideas the pair had that, in hindsight, would have worked out terribly.

Layo laughs: "We had two or three routes of different things that we're connected with from our own journeys and experiences in life."

But he remains shtum on what they were: "I'm not going to tell you what they are because it's part of what we'll be doing in the future."

Back to the restaurant at hand and the Paskins tell me that while the chefs in the kitchen might be from Jerusalem, The Palomar is not trying to be Machneyuda in London. The cooking is as authentic as it gets ("With a modern, funky outlook on everything which chimes with what we're into" adds Layo) and created from recipes passed down by families.

But a great restaurant takes more than good food.

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Beetroot in trays.

"The idea of authenticity carries across the board," explains Zoё. "Although the relationship in a nightclub or cocktail bar is different to a restaurant, you're still working to create a mood, a setting, a tone for something."

And the secret to creating that atmosphere?

Zoё continues: "We've always put a huge amount of importance on the team that we're working with. It brings out a lot of genuine warmth and that energy is very real here. We're siblings. The head chef and pastry chef are married. There's a natural warm feeling because there are a lot of people who are very close to each other here!"

"A restaurant is partly about service, about hospitality. We all go out to feel a little better."

I ask the Paskins why they think Middle Eastern food has seen such a rise in popularity since being spearheaded in the UK by chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi (I judge the successful saturation of the trend by a recent visit to a Cotswolds village cafe, which served "jewelled" rice drowned in pomegranate seeds).

pans-the-palomar

"Middle Eastern cuisine is cooking from a huge region in the world and there's a lot of interplay within countries, with slight tweaks on each of the recipes," says Layo. "These are recipes that have been passed down for hundreds of, if not more, years. They're not a million miles away from Mediterranean cooking and the flavours are rich, interesting, and diverse."

He continues: "There are enough layers to it that are still to be discovered. Those elements are what make people enjoy a cuisine."

But the type of cooking and heritage isn't the whole secret to The Palomar's success.

the-palomar-prepping-beetroot

"I sincerely believe any cuisine that is good can be made into a great restaurant." says Layo. "That's been proven now people are doing so many different things."

Zoё adds: "With everything we do, we want to cover every detail we can so that we have the best chance of doing something that's going to capture people. We don't start thinking, in any of the places we run, that it's going to go as well as it might do."

Layo agrees: "We work shifts in the same pattern as the restaurant and eat at them at least twice a week because otherwise you can't be integrated. I think the only time we would feel anxious is if we did a restaurant because we thought it would make money, rather than because we really believed in a restaurant. The feeling has to be, this is a great restaurant, we really believe in this idea, and then let's hope it makes money."

beetroot-carpaccio-the-palomar

Beetroot carpaccio with goat cheese, lentil tuile, and pomegranate molasses.

When it's time for me to leave The Palomar, everyone from the kitchen staff to the managerial team come to bid me goodbye. I'm reminded of something Layo said earlier about the three types of restaurants that exist.

READ MORE: Listening to the Spirits Helped Make My Restaurant a Success

He explained: "There's the one that's terrible and you never go back. At the other one, there's nothing really wrong but something about it makes you not want to return. And then there's another kind of restaurant that you always want to go back to. Of course, that's the restaurant you want to be."

Judging by how quickly the place has filled up for lunch service, I think The Palomar falls firmly into the third category.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2016.