A new addition to north London’s underwhelming restaurants: Café Hampstead reviewed

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

Café Hampstead is a new café in — big reveal! — Hampstead, the gaudiest of the old villages on the hills around London. Hampstead was once, mysteriously, home to progressives too many to type; refugees from Belsize Park carrying their most precious back copies of the LRB in plastic sacks. Why did they live in Hampstead? What for? They have moved out now, or died, and the truth died with them. We will never know what it was that they thought they wanted, or saw; whether it was always betrayal, or the wife made them do it.

You can mock, and I do, but Hampstead is less interesting without them; there is little to laugh at these days, even if it is usual to see James Corden and Ricky Gervais in the street, looking for things to put in their mouths. Comedians like Hampstead too, presumably for the same reason.

Otherwise it’s full of French people now, and babies, and French babies. They have their own boutiques, and enablers, and well-trod paths, and there is only one pseudo–intellectual left in the whole parish among this troupe of rich babies, and he is lonely and looks frightened — of nothing tangible I fancy, just
a mood state.

One of the main topics of debate in now incurious Hampstead is why there aren’t any good restaurants in such a monied place. (A fashion magazine would call it an enclave, but I won’t. The status of enclave is implicit.) The answer is: there is one, the marvellous Coffee Cup, which I daren’t review for fear of spoiling it, but I can say its pasta chef is a genius and possibly a supernatural being, and then there is Carluccio’s, and Café Rouge — neither of which are good — and the hamburger joint Spielburger, which is too embarrassed to admit, rightly, that it is an homage to the director of Poltergeist, honoured, I suspect, just for being Jewish. There is also the crêpe stall patronised by tourists so stoned they have to be told what to order because they cannot even think about chocolate sauce. This is pretty desolate, even in London.

And now there is another — Café Hampstead, which says it is Tel Aviv-style dining but has yet to get a delegation from the BDS movement, asking it to merge with Spielburger — or Wagamama? — into a sort of one-state restaurant where no one is a racist and, failing that, to get in the sea. Perhaps they are busy at SOAS, building papier-mâché checkpoints and plasticine machine-guns for toy wars.

It isn’t like Tel Aviv at all, and this does not surprise. There is no heat, no sea, and no people screaming at each other, even to say hello. Rather, it has green banquettes and dark floors and dim lighting under an atrium. It is the sort of decoration so popular in north London it might have been stranded there by a big, green velvet wave, and there is absolutely nothing Israeli — or Jewish — about it. The service is charming but itinerant, the food Israeli-ish; there is adequate chicken schnitzel, for instance, and mezze — but why pizza?

It is a pleasant spot, but the identity is muted, and this is disappointing. I am always very strict with Jewish restaurants — I criticised 1701 by Bevis Marks because the food was too good — but in this case the charge is different: it is faintly, weakly, quasi-Jewish. It is not Jewish enough.

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