Mumbling and grumbling during my journey to Dalston the other night, as the 38 bus did an average speed of just less than walking pace all the way from Holborn in the pouring rain, just helped to highlight how I end up travelling to some parts of town for dinner over and over again, and how much of a restaurant desert are some other parts (Battersea, for example, where I live). It hardly seems fair that so many thrusting new restaurants set up shop within walking distance of each other in the East, while the single only spot worth visiting within walking distance of my house is Mien Tay - lovely on its own terms of course, but man cannot live by Pho alone.
Oren is yet another wonderful neighbourhood restaurants in a neighbourhood not short of good neighbourhood restaurants. And that I felt that despite the stress of getting there and back (don't even get me started on the journey home) is testament to just how good it is. The menu is Eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern leaning, but using seasonal British ingredients. So far, so Dalston. But never make the msitake of thinking this kind of thing is easy, or that an intelligent small-plates seasonal restaurant is some kind of inevitable endpoint in trendy parts of town because there's very clearly a lot of work gone into not just the food at Oren, but also the manner in which it is presented.
Take this huge arrangement of mezze, for example, served alongside a piping hot flatbread straight out of the charcoal oven. There was a pile of tomato pulp in good grassy olive oil, a super-smooth hummus rich with tahini, some extremely good house pickles with a kick of fermented funk, pickled beetroot, some kind of sour cream thing which could be labneh or toum (though I didn't detect much garlic if it was toum) topped with za'atar, and finally some spicy chopped/pickled carrots. All stuff you may have had elsewhere, but refined and elevated to a very high standard (as you might expect, for £17).
I did think twice about using this absolutely awful photo of the pollock "pastrami" (smoked salmon, only made with pollock) but hopefully even out of focus you will notice its translucent jewel-like appearance and the neat ring of burnt romano peppers which had a fantastic charred/smokey taste. If I'm being brutally critical, the pollock was a little too salty - and I'm someone that usually complains things aren't seasoned enough - but it was still a very clever bit of work.
Jerusalem artichoke fritters - fried very aggressively to a slightly bitter, extra crunchy outisde but then perhaps that's entirely deliberate - had nevertheless a lovely soft interior and came alongside a little blob of sour cream topped with zhoug (a kind of coriander/chilli/garlic green sauce).
With the veggies more or less covered by this point, and with Oren already demonstrating its ability to be a very good vegetarian restaurant in its own right, we moved on to the meats. First, the "Jerusalem mix grill", a wonderfully soft, pillowy pita containing all kinds of bits of tender offal - kidneys, liver and heart at least I think - bound by amba (mango) sauce. This was just great, and at £9 would make a very good lunch for one to takeaway if you were lucky enough to live or work nearby.
Finally, a pile of lamb breast shawarma so tender and full of flavour it made a case for the awful journey here all by itself. The meat itself was wonderful of course, but as well as containing plenty of soft lamb fat into the mix, it was also - a stroke of genius - studded with little cubes of fried bread, for a bit of extra texture. Topped with more excellent pickles and with another silky smooth sauce (tahini yoghurt) it was the kind of dish that forces you to wipe the plate clean. Which indeed we did.
With a bottle of Chin Chin Vinho Verde (when in Dalston) and a cocktail (Oaxaca Old Fashioned, very nice) the bill came to £60 each, pretty much right in the middle of what you should be paying for this kind of thing these days. Certainly we felt like we'd got our money's worth, especially when you throw in the super attentive and lovely service (although minus a point for the inadequate single toilet, for which there was a queue most of the evening).
When I eventually got home, after a journey that involved an Uber, the overground, the Jubilee line, a train and then another Uber, I realised I would have to approach my review of Oren as if it was somewhere newly opened on Lavender Hill, and not nearly an hour and a half away on one of the wettest nights of the year. Objectively, then, Oren is a gorgeous little neighbourhood restaurant, serving food you want to eat at prices you can afford, and it's no surprise it's doing very well. But please, future restaurant owners, please can you consider something like this in Wandsworth or Clapham? Would it kill you?