Marking the festival of lights, Ben Murphy
's still lifes of schmaltzed radishes, bagels and half-sour pickles set amid rarefied tableware are inspired by English restaurateur Russell Norman's newest endeavor, Mishkin's. A charming homage to the vanishing world of London’s east end cafes of the 30s and 40s, Norman's "kind-of Jewish deli with cocktails" mixes in themes from New York’s Lower East Side. “Mishkin's takes inspiration from the culinary traditions of Jewish culture and playfully reinterprets them,” he explains. “For me, Jewish food is comfort food, the original austerity cooking.” The menu includes neo-Yiddish twists such as latkes with smoked eel and a whitefish-and-spinach knish with parsley liquor. Since launching his first restaurant, Polpo, in September 2009, the prolific gastronome has opened five highly acclaimed joints in and around London’s Soho, including Polpetto and Spuntino, each with their own subtle movie-set ambience. Here Norman talks about the quintessential English cafe, salt beef and his favorite NYC eateries.Tell us about your nostalgic interest in the vanishing world of cafes and diners.
You know, it’s quite recent and it began with a trip to [London's] Whitechapel, looking for a restaurant that wasn’t there. That’s when I came across some lovely old cafes from the 30s and 40s, a couple of those pie ‘n’ mash shops selling eel and some really fascinating shop fronts.What Jewish dishes do you like most?
I am completely drawn to the sandwiches: Reuben, salt beef, hot dogs... they are great value and represent a whole meal in their own right.What was your first encounter with them?
1991, Brick Lane. salt beef bagel with extra fat.How did you adapt a classic Jewish dish?
We adapted our Knish to make it more edible. The Knishes we tried in New York were disgusting—hard, stodgy and flavorless. We made ours more like the J.Sheekey fish cake: tasty, textured and edible.Which restaurants do you visit when in New York?
I’m a real creature of habit when I go back there. I always have to go to the original Fatty Crab on Hudson. There are some great dishes there—the pork fat slider is wonderful. So scruffy, I just love it! Always have to put in a visit to one or two of Keith McNally’s places so, Pulino’s or Schiller’s Liquor Bar.The shop front reads E.Mishkin. What does the “E” stand for?
Ezra. A character from a Dostoevsky novel. I always knew it was going to be colloquially referred to as Mishkin’s but the shop front would say E. Mishkin, simply because that was the tradition of the 1930s cafes. Rather than get the waiters to spin a yarn I thought I would come up with something that's ambiguous, plausible and could give to our customers that they would not be sure whether it was true or completely made up. I like that ambiguity.