What makes a restaurant a perfect refuge from the nibbling insecurities of life? Why, for instance, is a café, sausage rolls and all, not a restaurant? How about a food truck outside a brewery or a hotdog stand manned by two entrepreneurial 11-year-olds?
The line between different purveyors of food and atmosphere is repeatedly crossed, especially in our fusion-hungry capital.
In steps Oren Delicatessen, the three-month-old offshoot of Oded Oren’s eponymous Dalston restaurant, building on the chef’s growing empire of cookbooks, catering services, and bottle shops.
Seemingly unhappy to remain a deli all its life, the place has now spruced up its offering, serving up Tel Avivian small plates and hankering after Haggerston’s lunch-seekers.
Sunshine beats relentlessly down, and my poor Norwegian boyfriend is about to melt into the steps of Aesop as we dart around the market hunting for air-conditioning.
The hectic thumping of the fair fades to a mere rumble as we divert down Ada Street, spying a little blue awning with four small tables outside. Blessed shade.
Inside twinkles a temple to food and wine. A corridor of treasures, with booze on one side, refrigerated tubs of goodness on the other, and a table with stews and sauces in between. Racks of freshly-made bread stand like sentinels of sustenance, whispering their alluring secrets to all who enter. Muted orange predominates, with roughly ten covers providing a cosy dining experience.
Could this be the new lunch location for beleaguered shoppers and well-heeled locals?
Now, this whole review could be consumed with my devotion to challah. I was introduced to this queen of bread by our American Israeli neighbours, who invite us for a Christmas/Hanukkah hybrid festival every year.
The gleaming, steaming, lightly honeyed, almost gauzy loaf is one of the many reasons I became a food fanatic. It’s a special bap and no mistake.
At Oren, everything rather revolves around it, as it is sheer perfection for thrusting into the piles of chopped, churned, and crushed produce on offer.
Taramasalata is the fishy feast one needs on a hot day, sprinkled with red onion flecks, the plonk of thick oceanic spread vanishes in seconds.
Another brave but gratifying choice is the chopped chicken livers with a large gherkin. When the bread runs out (which it sadly will, all too quickly), dip the gherkin and experience an explosion of vinegary, earthy meatiness.
The labneh is dessert-like, delightfully artery-clogging, and white as snow with flecks of oil-drenched za’atar in the centre.
The rainbow pickles and gigantic emerald olives are a good choice for those wanting more of a delicate graze.
There is a burnt aubergine and romano pepper salad for vegans (the only option, I might add).
We have schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) herring and cured pollock for the more adventurous diner. The herring is so ladened with fatty juices that it dissolves in your mouth, leaving only the almost alcoholic trace of sun, sea, and sand.
Working our way through the small wine-by-the-glass menu and watching East London scurry by is about as bucolic as this city gets. The amber-tinged tartness of Les Sablonnettes, a chenin blanc, is a deeply rewarding choice.
A meal filled with colour, flavour, and pounds of gorgeous bread. What could be better on a sweltering June day?
Well, hold your horses. In a past review, I bought a bottle of disappointing wine with lunch and then saw it available to take away from the shop section of the restaurant (a corner to the left of our table) for well under half the price. Infuriating indeed.
Oren falls foul here too. All the dishes are available to take away, along with the bottles of wine and bread, at a lower price than they would be if one ate in.
The hooch along the wall can be bought and drunk on premises with a £15 corkage fee, possibly the highest I have ever seen. The food is dynamic, yes, but what justifies the extra cost? Where does the deli end and the restaurant begin? Oren seems to be treading the line rather clumsily.
This leads me back to my original question. What makes a restaurant?
Oren has many of the required attributes: charming staff, challenging food, and a sophisticated monopoly on wine bars that serve small plates adjacent to Broadway Market.
But without a toilet that isn’t in the middle of the kitchen or a sink that isn’t behind a counter, the jump to restaurant seems a little premature. For now at least, it is the deli side of this establishment that is leading the way.
Grab a famous loaf, a bottle of nice wine, a tub of taramasalata and dazzle at your mate’s birthday picnic.
And whatever you do, don’t forget the bread pudding made from leftover challah, which is a certified sensation wherever you decide to tuck in.
For more information, visit orendeli.com.