ON MY MENU THIS WEEK: I’M DIGGING OUT MY PASSPORT FOR A TRIP TO ODED OREN’S SOUTH LONDON POP UP
The Walworth Road, a gritty stretch of high street south of London’s Elephant & Castle, is not where you expect to find an Israeli chef used to cooking for the sophisticates of Paris, California and Herzliya. But it’s where Oded Oren is currently attracting rave reviews at Louie Louie. Oren, who looks more Scandinavian than Sabra, has been in London five years, yet his name remains relatively unknown. Possibly because Louie Louie, his longest London restaurant tenure to date, is far from the foodie enclaves of Soho and Shoreditch and unusual in more ways than its location.
By day it’s an airy, ultra-modern cafe serving everyone from workmen to creatives. Every evening — from Wednesday to Saturday — Oren and his souschef dispense modern Israeli fare he describes as “Mediterranean rather than Middle Eastern — heavy on fish and fresh herbs but light on the spice — and above all, clean.”
Born in Tel Aviv, Oren credits the Moroccan and Iraq nannies who helped bring him up for his more exotic culinary influences. Yet although his family is Ashkenazi, he was not raised on bland cuisine: “My mother was a good cook, and my father was big on eating out in restaurants. Then when you’d go to friends’ houses in Israel you were exposed to all kinds of different food.”
After catering school in Israel, he went straight to Paris to hone his skills (“that’s where I learned the importance of a proper mise en place”) followed by a spell in California, after which he went to work at Turkiz — a seafood restaurant in Herzliya — where he indulged his love of all things pescatarian.
Oren followed girlfriend, Tamar, to London, where she was studying for a master’s degree and they later married. He initially made his way as a private caterer. That led to a series of successful pop-ups — in Dalston’s Broadway Market, the Oval Space in East London and at the National Gallery under the aegis of Oliver Peyton. These led to his current six-month residency at Louie Louie, which he’s nearly half-way through.
Oren cooks with a profusion of herbs, and when he does use spice, he’s very particular about his sources: “I only use a special paprika I bring from Israel, which is very rich and dark and has a lovely flavour; anyone who visits knows they have to bring me a supply,” he laughs.
His menus contain plenty of fish and lighter dishes; his favourite signature offering is a “kebab” of hand-chopped sea bass and hake seasoned with chopped onion, green herbs, fennel seeds and lemon zest: “I mix it together with no binding whatsoever and char-grill the patties — but you can do it at home on a griddle.”
Interestingly, given the steer away from Middle Eastern flavours, one dish which attracted a special mention from normally acerbic food critic Jay Rayner in a recent review in the Observer, was Oren’s hummus. Whipped fluffy enough to substitute for mashed potatoes it was served alongside braised ox cheek: “We practically lick the plate clean,” raved Rayner.
What is Oren’s secret for perfect hummus? A terrifying attention to detail most cooks would not want or have time to attempt at home: “The chickpeas have to be cooked properly then peeled so they’re not grainy - and there is no short cut to peeling them one by one,” he says.
Sadly for Louie Louie, the South London eatery seems to be just a stepping stone for the 41-year-old chef, who plans his own East London restaurant as his next step to stardom.
“I’m still looking at sites, but envisage a space with 40 covers and a lot of food prepared behind the bar to create a good ambience.”
Sounds a bit like Palomar, but when asked about London’s current slew of Israeli restaurants, Oren says: “My food is not really like theirs — it’s much cleaner.”