Interview with founders of Delamina restaurant

Limor and Amir Chen, the husband and wife team behind Marylebone’s vibrant new Delamina restaurant, on Tel Aviv, Ottolenghi and the search for the perfect olive oil

Words: Clare Finney

When Limor and Amir Chen opened Strut and Cluck in Shoreditch last year, theirs was far more than a poultry offering. Hipsters, healthy eaters and homesick Tel Aliv-ers alike flocked to gobble up this vibrant, fragrant, accessible addition to London’s growing Israeli food scene. It was like Christmas every day—at least, as far as the meat was concerned. Turkey schnitzel; turkey koftas; turkey shawarma; if it was an animal and it was on your plate, it was a turkey. But the reasoning behind this brilliantly bird-focused menu choice was not the realisation of Wizzard’s famous lyrics, but the Chens’ belief that, combined with the full, heartfelt flavours of Israeli cuisine and Levantine ingredients, the humble yet healthy turkey was a bird worth clucking about.

Mercifully, Delamina is impossible to pun on. Yet what the Chens’ latest venture lacks in pun-ability, it more than makes up for in the flavour, diversity and heritage of its food. Building on the success of Strut and Cluck, Limor and Amir set out to bring their unique cuisine, encompassing Iranian, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Lithuanian-via-South American culinary influences, to Marylebone. The result—charcoaled leeks with crumbled manouri, dried apricots, roasted hazelnuts and crispy capers; squid marinated in za’atar with crushed roasted tomatoes, caperberries and crispy cavolo nero; Moshe’s herbed and spiced angus beef and venison koftas, on a bed of hummus and tahini—is as close as you can get without leaving W1 to the sights, smells and savour of Tel Aviv.

“Strut and Cluck was an extension of my home kitchen,” says Limor. “In Israel, eating turkey is not unusual, and I have always cooked with it because it is so healthy.” Though her husband was already immersed in the hospitality industry (Amir was one of the founding partners of the coffee chain Apostrophe), the couple’s Shoreditch pop-up—and, later, bricks and mortar restaurant—was more of a “personal journey: a new baby, after the kids had gone to university,” Amir explains. Delamina was the next logical step. Where Strut and Cluck was focused on turkey, the bright, airy Marylebone Lane joint strikes a balance between meat, seafood and the vegetarian dishes so lauded by restaurant critics: “The big bird shares space with juicy lamb koftas and crispy fried squid,” wrote the Evening Standard’s Ben Norum of Strut and Cluck when it first opened, “but it’s the non-meat dishes which really stand-out.”

The greatest influence
“I am very happy with the way the menu has developed,” says Limor. “It’s how I cook at home: healthily, but without compromising on taste and texture.” Limor’s dad was Iranian, and her greatest culinary influence. She and her siblings grew up on fresh, punchy herbs, tingling spices, and the sweet and sour tang of dried fruit in stews. For another, she adds, “my kids are spoilt. They just wouldn’t eat bland food, so I’ve had to work hard to feed them well.” That Limor has achieved such depth of flavour without any formal training is remarkable. That she can do so without the lashings of butter and salt you find in most restaurant kitchens is a feat that has to be tasted to be believed.

“Chefs—at least, traditionally trained chefs—have a tendency to use as much butter as possible. Limor has worked hard with our team to get away from that mentality. We don’t fry unless we have to, and we use good olive oil in place of butter,” explains Amir. Delamina’s head chef, Cristiano, is Italian. The move to olive oil was one he could easily get on board with. But to forswear frying? “It’s been an interesting journey,” Amir grins. For three months prior to their first opening in Shoreditch, Limor and Cristiano cooked together every day. “We taught each other. He respected my passion and philosophy, I respected his knowledge. He knew which of my dishes could work in a restaurant, and which we couldn’t do justice to.” Did it matter that Cristiano isn’t Israeli? “Not in the slightest. I knew what I wanted. I just needed an experienced chef who was open minded enough to work with me!”

The Chens took Cristiano to Israel. They showed him the sights, and shared their food culture with him. In the process, they initiated him into an approach to cooking that, in principle, could not be further removed from Italian cuisine. “In Italy, if you don’t cook a recipe the right way, it is not because you’re creative,” says Amir. “It’s because you don’t know how to do it. In Israel, there is no right way of doing anything.” The country’s chefs are joyously creative; their dishes were liberated from the shackles of tradition the moment they left their original countries. “Ours is a country of immigrants: it literally became a country through immigration,” says Amir, and each immigrant “brought with them the dishes of their country, with a Jewish twist, or a Jewish dish with a twist from that country.”

A mish-mashed culture
There’s no strict regionality in Israel. In Italy, a Neapolitan could be shot at dawn for cooking a Roman pizza. In Israel, they’ve bigger fish to fry—and, as Amir points out, they’ve all intermarried. “My mum is Bulgarian, my dad is South American of Lithuanian extraction. Limor has Russian, Iranian and Ukrainian roots. Things have been mish-mashed.” The only common denominator, says Limor, is the use of lemon, olive oil, and local herbs and spices—which she took painstaking care over when it came to sourcing.

The olive oil took the longest. “Good olive oil is the backbone of Israeli cuisine,” explains Amir. “And we needed one to go with a range of dishes.” Limor tried endless suppliers, from countries across the Fertile Crescent, until she found The One, from Lebanon. Fortunately, when it came to the herbs and spices, her path to punchy cooking had, to a large extent, been cleared.

“Yotam Ottolenghi’s role is not to be underestimated. Prior to him, many of the spices we use every day had never even been heard of before in the UK.” Za’atar. Sumac. Tahini. Tamarind. Not only did Ottolenghi bring these into our consciousness, he physically imported them, paving the way for lesser mortals to pick up the mantle of Middle Eastern cuisine. “With the exception of The Palomar guys, all the great Israeli chefs—Honey and Co, Berber and Q, Bala Baya—hail from Ottolenghi’s kitchen. He really has been at the forefront.” Limor’s no chef, but without the ‘Ottolenghi effect’, as it has been dubbed, she’d have had a far harder job sourcing the ingredients their cuisine needs.

Comforting food
“I’m not a chef,” Limor says, again—and you might think she doth protest too much. After all, beef cheeks with dates and pul biber on saffron polenta sounds pretty professional—but the merits of her home-schooling become lavishly apparent the moment you tuck into her food. “It is more comforting,” says Amir. “The portions are slightly bigger, and the food comes in three courses. It doesn’t ‘come when it’s ready’.” Nor for the Chens the scrum of the tapas-style sharing plates, where the veg comes at different times to the meat and slow eaters go home hungry. “We don’t like to eat that way.” If you’re running your own restaurant, he reasons, you want to serve your kind of food. “Besides, it’s a bit of a cop out for the kitchen. It’s easiest to serve food when it’s ready. It’s far harder to synchronise courses,” Limor adds. People can share if they want to—and you almost certainly will, when the time comes—but not at the expense of portion size or the size of the bill.

Which brings us to the wine list. It’s not long, but it’s fairly-priced, especially when you consider the locations of some of the vineyards. There’s the usual suspects—France, Spain, Italy, Chile—but the bulk of Delamina’s wines hail from the Levant. “They’re more expensive for us to purchase, but they do fit better with our food.” On the menu, a Lebanese white rubs shoulders with a Palestinian red and an Israeli white, in poignant semblance of harmony. “We heard about this Palestinian wine, produced by a convent in Bethlehem, and we wanted to support it,” Limor enthuses. “Collaboration—any kind of collaboration—within this region is an amazing thing.”

Israeli wines are on the up. Of course, there’s always been wine in the Holy Land—where would the Bible be without it?—but in the past they were produced almost solely for personal consumption. “Traditionally, Israeli wines are kosher—if you’re Jewish, wine has to be kosher like anything else—so they had a ready-made market.” On the one hand, the absence of competition made the producers lazy. On the other, the methods and principles of kosher wine production naturally makes for wines of quality. “The vineyards are worked in a cycle: every seven years they are left fallow, which is extremely good for the vineyard,” says Amir. Factor in abundant sunshine and you have wine which “has many of the characteristics of southern European wines and, today, is becoming increasingly sophisticated. The wine we serve, for example—a roussanne-viognier-sauvignon blanc from upper Galilee—is from a renowned Israeli winemaker. We’re his first international customer. He only produces 400 cases a year.”

A magnetic energy
Limor and Amir are Israeli but, first and foremost, they are people of Tel Aviv. The distinction matters, says Limor: “Tel Aviv is different to Israel in the same way New York is different to the US, and Cape Town to South Africa. It has a magnetic energy. It has its own vibe.” Though Amir’s family left when he was small, Limor spent her childhood and early adulthood in this liberal university town, where “there is no sense of tomorrow, and life is one long party. It’s not a pretty city,” she continues—unless you’re a fan of Bauhaus architecture that is, of which there is plenty—“but it is creative and incredibly open-minded.”

Creativity comes across in the music and art of Tel Aviv as well as its cuisine. It’s this that Delamina captures. “We worked with an Israeli DJ to create our playlist,” Amir says. “It’s pretty eclectic. It really chimes with the menu, somehow.” Limor, meanwhile, having previously worked as an artist, has applied her considerable talent to Delamina’s design. “I wanted people to feel like they were on holiday—not in a kitsch way, just in terms of the colours and atmosphere.” The moss-green shutters, verdant plants, reclaimed wood floor, and mismatched colourful chairs are remarkably transporting when you consider their proximity to Oxford Street. “It’s partly our restaurant,” she continues. “But it is also partly our lounge.”

She points to the family photos dotted around the restaurant: small, grainy, sepia, they are a far cry from the blown-up, black and white images less salubrious restaurants display to suggest ‘heritage’. “These are our family: my ancestors in kibbutz, Amir’s in Uruguay,” she smiles. “These are our plates, made by a potter we know back in Israel.” I pick up one of the heavy, lagoon-blue plates. It feels authentic—and I don’t say that lightly. Delamina has a reality to it most restaurateurs can only dream of. By all means head to Strut and Cluck if you’re in that part of town. It’s a fun, tasty, pun-tastic experience. But Delamina is their home from home.

Delamina in Marylebone