A restaurant in a synagogue. How strange can it be?

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

A restaurant in a synagogue may be too mad even for this column but we are Jews, so why not? (Column shrugs with the secret frisson of negative stereotyping.) 1701 is adjacent to Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London; it is the oldest, wisest and most camouflaged synagogue in Britain, disguised, presumably for safety, as a Christopher Wren church. This anticipates the joy of confusion — rabbis (I have long stopped calling them rabbits, being above such idiocies, as in Orthodox Rabbit, Progressive Rabbit, Welsh Rabbit) being asked for salad dressing, waiters being asked for blessings, security men (Jews love security men, in a complex way) being asked to wrap a piece of fish for a late snack. Heaven. Or not. Jews don’t really have a heaven; if we did we would hate it.

1701 is, of course, kosher. I am a member of a synagogue so progressive that it has a service to bless Gay Pride; so I practise what is called ‘soft’ kosher. Soft kosher means no seafood or pork and, as such, is no more kosher, in the technical sense, than the rotting corpse of Abu Hamza or an actual lobster. 1701 is tougher and it knows it; even so, it manages — and this is something I have never encountered in a kosher restaurant — to be subtle. Usually they are a lurid puddle of fat, psychological torture and shouting.

1701 has dark walls and pale floors; through the walls you can see the inside of the synagogue, which is a mixed pleasure, depending on what is happening there, and how attractive the mourners or celebrants are. Today, Professor Simon Schama, the bounciest of Jewish historians, a man who always reminds me of a space-hopper that has swallowed an era, is being photographed to publicise his TV show The Story of the Jews. He gives the photographer his ‘faces’. Happy. Sad. Pensive. Intelligent. Happy. Sad.

The clientele are soft, affluent and very Jewish; solicitors on the run from themselves, the sort of men who play the guitar in their Hampstead Garden Suburb cottages and weep. The gentlemen at the next table are holding, respectively, a legal contract and a doctor’s prescription — are they perhaps connected? The stairs to the toilet have a stairlift. I deduce that 1701 caters to large numbers of stroke victims.

We turn to the menu. It is a mixture of the two traditions of Jewish cuisine: Sephardi, which is inspired by Arab food, and Ashkenazi, which is inspired by the holiest of Jewish ritual objects, the chicken. So gefilte fish is served alongside chopped liver and Israeli salad; the diaspora shrinks to the size of a menu, which should please the three National Socialists still alive. It is, as I said, proper kosher. This means no milk, since they serve meat; if they served meat, they could not serve milk, thanks to the author of Exodus xxiii 19, who has ruined more dinner parties by himself than all the alcoholics in history put together. This leads, inexorably, to a little-publicised Jewish invention — haute cuisine margarine. They do their best; but it is still margarine.

And so to chicken soup; here they call it ‘Jewish penicillin’, although it is really ‘Jewish heart disease’, in denial and rebranded. (A Jewish joke: ‘Why do Jewish men die young? Because they want to.’) Chicken soup should taste like your grandmother’s curse on your enemies; it should be fierce and strong, with heavy dumplings of burnt onion, chicken fat and crushed matzah. True chicken soup can never be found in a restaurant, because, like grandmothers, it cannot be bought; here, it knows it. The dumplings are posh and too delicate; Friday Night Dinner (roast chicken) is likewise too subtle to evoke authentic Jewish cuisine, which should taste like Joseph Heller’s tears. I give this Jewish restaurant a typically Jewish review: the food is too good.

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Restaurant 1701, Bevis Marks Synagogue, Bevis Marks, London EC3A 5DQ, tel: 020 7621 1701.

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