I’ve always been dubious about bottomless brunches: how much would I really want to drink on a Sunday over a civilised brunch?! But I write this post one (and not terribly under the influence) and I’ve been proven totally wrong: Zest at JW3’s take on it is a total success: the food, the drink(s), its culture and my company. For those unfamiliar with JW3, Zest is the restaurant, café and bar at this art, community and cultural venue at the bottom of Finchley Road, billed as “the new postcode for Jewish life” – their words, not mine! Set up as charity for the benefit of the Jewish community, it’s complete with an active cinema, baby crèche (including one for half-Jewish children!) and of course, Zest. This café is not a side note to the community centre though: run by ex-Ottolenghi chefs, Josh Katz and Eran Tibi, it promises a lot and delivers so.
Blending culinary cultures and Tel Aviv traditions to create a contemporary approach to Jewish cooking, its food is probably my favourite kind: dips, mezze, spices (paprika and dukkha in particular), aubergines…And paired with pomegranate mimosas (or harissa Bloody Marys), I felt like I could have been sitting in Tel Aviv this bank holiday Sunday, from morning through to a lazy afternoon. Indeed, it’s had Giles Coren and Jay Rayner (both Jewish and perhaps the harshest critics of their own culinary heritage) dancing merry jigs up the Finchley Road. Rayner wrote: “Quietly, unexpectedly – and without anybody bothering to consult me – Jewish food has become really, really good. Frankly, I’m appalled.”
And better still, Zest have recently launched a bottomless brunch, happening every Sunday against a backdrop of live jazz (a singer, double bass and guitar which had a very Manhattan vibe). Priced at under £20 for bottomless pomegranate mimosas (or harissa bloody mary’s) plus a kosher all-you-can-eat buffet, it’s incredibly good value and something that is totally unrivalled in London.
Zest occupies a huge, airy vault at the base of a new building, full of white walls. The building as a whole is very cool and modern. You enter through gates then across a bridge over a lower courtyard. After a quick bag search by smiling security, you descend into the restaurant itself. It felt very Manhattan – in fact, my companions likened it to a cultural centre in Harvard. New York is of course peppered with hundreds of kosher restaurants. Once in the basement, a wall of glass looks out on a huge public space allowing a mass of light to flood in.
Even the ceramics are beautiful: the brightly-coloured plates, cups, saucers, and bowls are stacked on shelves throughout the restaurant. An Israeli company, Adama, produces all the pottery. Two sisters run the company, based in Petach Tikvah, and this is their first commercial shipment to the UK. Zest’s Israeli roots are further cemented by the choice of condiments on the table; salt, chili flakes and of course, za’atar – a tasty complement to Zest’s home-made bread.
After enjoying a couple of pomegranates mimosas as we waited for the rest of our party to arrive and for the 90-minute clock to start ticking (though not strictly timed!), we headed to the buffet. Featuring shaskhuka, dips of all varieties (babaghanoush, carrot turmeric hummus, avocado, labneh), it’s all super vegetarian friendly. I had to try a bit of everything, in a staggered fashion of course…
To kick things off, plate #1 featured carrot hummus, babaghanoush, the fennel orange salad and tabbouleh. Each dip was totally addictive, particularly the carrot hummus. Zest’s version of this Middle Eastern classic hits the spot: silky and smooth, it’s one to eat by the spoon. Made with smoked paprika, peppery olive oil and tahini, it’s gloriously adulterated with fiery harissa.
Moving to plate #2, this was one for the roasted aubergine salad, the tomato and pepper sauce and avocado dip. A random combo but I couldn’t resist trying each one. The aubergine was a triumph: it had dribbles of yoghurt here and there, and bursts of acidity. It was chewy, soft and had high fresh breathy notes of coriander. The tomato sauce, meanwhile, was gloriously sweet and surprisingly well offset by the fresh avocado. And not to forget the vividly green zhoug: probably the favourite chutney of the table.
And for those with a sweet tooth, there’s a spread of pancakes, fruit, chantilly cream and compote to finish things of nicely.
I’m surprised Zest is more known about, more “scene”, as its more central London counterparts are. Drooling restaurant critics can’t get enough of the bright, punchy Middle Eastern flavours being cooked up by Honey & Co, The Palomar, Ottolenghi and a raft of eateries staffed by graduates of his kitchens. In anticipation of a lengthy queue, my companions and I even arrived bang on 11am, just 15 minutes after opening time, anticipating a lengthy queue. But we walked straight it and only a couple of other tables were full with Jewish families. Saying that, though, I hope Zest remains somewhat hidden, authentic, and true to its kosher roots. It’s probably one of the best brunches I’ve had in London: for its food, drink, value for money and cultural roots.
Zest, 341-351 Finchley Rd, London NW3 6ET