How long have you been looking to open your own restaurant?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Back in Israel I worked as an executive chef, and when I first came to London in 2012, I got a job running the kitchen of a restaurant in Chelsea. It wasn’t a great experience, though, so I left in order to do my own thing. But opening a restaurant isn’t easy. I’ve had lots of opportunities to partner with investors, but I’ve always passed. I knew I wanted to do this project on my own. In my experience, if you open a restaurant with other people’s money, the whole operation immediately becomes very business orientated, and it can lose its heart and soul. I actively started looking for a site about three years ago, and it took me until this summer to find a suitable space.
Describe the concept for Oren
I’ve done numerous residencies and pop-ups over the years, experimenting with different ideas; including a pie and mash concept, which proved to be very popular. Mediterranean food was always my passion, though, and I knew that’s what I wanted to explore with my own place. But I also wanted it to reflect on the flavours of where I’ve come from. People have compared my food to that of Ottolenghi, but I don’t think it is. The ingredients are similar, but I have my own style; more straightforward and stripped back. It’s food that’s unique to me, in a restaurant with my name above the door.
What’s on the menu?
It’s a casual offering, with a small plates menu that’s designed to come in at around £30 to £35 per head. I know it sounds cliched, but I don’t like the idea of people having to spend a fortune to eat out. My plan is to change the offering every week depending on what fish and meats I can source, but there will also be staples including the ox cheek with hummus; and the Jerusalem mixed-grill, which is an offal dish combining lamb sweetbreads with duck hearts and chicken livers. I marinate the meat in a mix of turmeric and cumin, cook it on a plancha grill, and serve it in freshly made pitas. It’s a perfect example of the food I want to serve; it’s a bit dirty and a bit sloppy, but it doesn’t matter because it tastes delicious.
Has working in your own space allowed you to be more experimental with your food?
It’s certainly allowed me to evolve areas of my cooking. I’d say around 70% of the menu consists of dishes I have done before during pop-ups and residences, but I do now have the capacity to cook larger pieces of fish and meat on charcoal, which is new. At the moment there’s a whole grilled plaice on the menu, served with kalamata olives; and we’ll be doing turbot too. I’ve also got a Tamworth pork chop on there, served with preserved lemon and roasted garlic, which is a dish I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
What challenges have you faced in opening the restaurant?
Some of the dishes didn’t come out as expected on the first night, but that’s just a teething problem that comes with opening a restaurant. And although there have been obstacles with some of the equipment, I’ve been really lucky with staff, so the operation is running smoothly. It’s funny, I thought I would be more scared at this point, but I actually feel quite calm.
Would you ever want to grow the concept?
At the moment I don’t think it would be smart to say. This is a certainly a concept that can evolve, though. For the next year at least, I don’t plan to think about doing anything else, but I certainly have other ideas I’d like to explore in the future. Maybe not by branching out and opening another Oren, but looking at other spaces, concepts, and opportunities.
Having worked as a chef in London for several years, how do you think the capital’s restaurant scene has evolved?
It’s changed tremendously in the years since I’ve arrived. The high street used to be dominated by recognisable chains, but now there’s so much more choice. And we’ve seen a shift towards more independent operators across the city, with diners keen on trying new foods and experiences that weren’t so readily accessible five to 10 years ago. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think this landscape gives smaller businesses like mine a great chance to thrive.
89 Shacklewell Ln, Dalston, London E8 2EB