What was once a tired-looking Mercedes car dealership on Finchley Road has been transformed into JW3, an impressive Jewish community centre. On its lowest floor, the trendy Zest restaurant, plus café and bar, is helmed by Ottolenghi alumni Josh Katz and Eran Tibi, who set up the acclaimed Made in Camden at the Roundhouse.
Kashrut laws prohibit the mixing of meat and milk, so this kosher supervised venue serves the sort of colourful Sephardic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fish and vegetarian dishes that you’ll find in Tel Aviv’s vibrant restaurants.
We were bowled over by freekeh risotto with tomatoes, aubergines, goats’ cheese, preserved lemon and pine nuts with its robust smoky, tangy and umami notes. Roasted cod with ptitim (Israeli couscous) and pangrattato (Italian-style breadcrumbs) was topped with superfluous tomato and okra braise, but the firm fish was a perfect foil to tender caramelised aubergines.
Little mezze of roasted beetroot with yoghurt, hazelnuts and dill, and marinated red peppers with feta and oregano were fine; but mushy, under-seasoned fried cauliflower with tahini and pomegranate molasses didn’t work as a dish served cold.
We loved the subtle rosewater malabi (Israeli blancmange) offset by stunning sour cherry compote and pistachio praline; but sweet potato sfinges (Sicilian-style doughnuts), although accompanied by clever and intriguing ‘glazed grapes’, were distinctly salty.
At 2012’s Gefiltefest (the Jewish food festival), it was announced that a vegetarian and vegan community café run by volunteer cooks would open in JW3. Thank goodness the idea was shelved in favour of the far zippier Zest.