Jeremy Borrow is playing on 25 years of experience of Middle Eastern cuisine to create something uniquely modern. Emma Lake reports
Nutshell has brought the ancient recipes of Iran's home kitchens to London's Theatreland and found them well-suited to the capital's contemporary audience.
The restaurant, in St Martins Lane, just off Trafalgar Square, is owned by Marwa Alkhalaf, formerly a chef at Mayfair's two-Michelin-starred the Greenhouse, and Tehran-born Mohammad Paknejad. At the helm of the kitchen is chef Jeremy Borrow, who spent 25 years working in the Middle East before returning to London and joining the Palomar in Soho in 2017.
Borrow explains: "It's a very seasonal cuisine and, as ancient as it is, it seems right on the money at the moment. There's no wastage, there's a lot of pickling, a lot of fermenting, they use every part of the animal they can get hold of, and it's delicious and healthy.
"In my opinion what differentiates us from any other Iranian or Persian restaurant is that we take this ancient, traditional method of cooking and modernise it. There's huge respect from us to the cuisine. Our intention was never to cheapen it; we're playing with it only to make it more up to date."
The kofte tabrizi (lamb meatball with dried fruit and walnut, £12.50) is a good example. Chickpeas and a specific basmati rice – a longer grain than that found in supermarkets – are cooked in lamb stock before being mixed with a stuffing that incorporates lamb, dried cherries, apricots, onions, parsley and walnuts.
Borrow says: "When you break it apart, it's a very light meatball in a very clear and strong tomato broth. You have a plethora of flavours facing you and it looks unreal: you can see the rice and the chickpeas; you have this golden colour on the inside; and it's sweet and sour – it's absolutely delicious."
Similarly, Borrow has developed a side which is a potato version of tahdig (the crispy rice found at the base of a pan that is traditionally fought over) (£4.50). He explains: "We make what is essentially a potato cake. We thinly slice potatoes, layer them up with saffron butter and roast them under a weight, long and slow. We press it for about 24 hours before we cut it into portions and deep-fry. It kind of becomes like a millefeuille, where the layers start to separate but hold together and it is super, super crispy. It's a very modern thing, but it ticks all the boxes."
Borrow and his team work from an open-plan kitchen in the 86-cover site to create dishes that may traditionally have been years in the making – Paknejad says his family have 40-year-old pickles within their larder. For example, developing a pomegranate molasses for the restaurant that can be made at the speed and quantity needed and resembles those found in Iran has proved difficult.
Several signature dishes have emerged since the restaurant opened at the end of July, but it is the restaurant's bazaar bread (£3.50), cooked in a brick oven that reaches 500ºC, that is well on its way to claiming a cult following. Borrow says: "The bread is a smash. We're baking it to order, which does slow up service a bit – it takes about six minutes. It comes out piping hot; we put olive oil, nigella seeds, sesame seeds and Maldon sea salt on top. Nobody orders just one."
The bread tops a menu that is divided into sections: nashta (translated as a snack or small meal to stop hunger), mezze, stove, grill and side. In the early weeks the mezze section was entirely vegetarian and, although a married sardines dish (£7.50) has been added, Borrow emphasises that the cuisine naturally lends itself to flexibility around dietary requirements.
The relatively short menu will evolve naturally, with Borrow having designed it to make the most of what is best from land and sea. For example, qalieh mahi (£16.50) – which translates as tamarind fish – is traditionally fish cooked within a stew, but at Nutshell, Borrow and his team have made a thick sauce on which the finest catch of the day, simply grilled, will sit.
A short dessert menu similarly features the flavours and scents of Iran, such as pistachio, rose, cardamom and fig, again rethought by Borrow, but retaining the familiar, something particularly demonstrated in the traditional fried batter zulbia, which is simply served, hot and crisp, alongside a fig cream. Borrow adds: "As Marwa will tell you, you don't change anything unless you're going to make a better version."
From the menu
- Caspian olive tapenade: rainbow radish, walnut, pomegranate £4.50
- Mast-o-Khiar: pistachio, rose, yogurt £6.50
- Smoky aubergine, feta, walnut, barberry £6.50
- Adasi, beluga lentils, yogurt, barberry £5.50
- Joosh Pareh: oxtail dumplings, sour cherry, chickpea £11.50
- Sekanjabin short rib, pistachio, pomegranate £17.50
- Octopus, sabzi salsa, butterbeans, orange £16.50
- Butternut squash fesenjun: walnut, pomegranate, barberry £10.50
30 St Martin's Lane, Charing Cross, London WC2N 4ER
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