Assaf Granit and Tom Dixon call the kitchen at The Coal Office restaurant, ‘the engine room’. Part stage, part gastronomic petri dish, it is coal-fired theatre; boisterous, open-plan cuisine art playing out in front of diners. Simon Mills meets this power duo…
Take a seat and you become part of the performance…
The cast is a multi-cultural mezze of chefs chopping, prepping and clattering. Oven flames, and glinting knives, exotic ingredients and meticulous techniques all on show. There is nowhere to hide and plenty to see.
And what are they making? Spicy, hybrid wonderstuff from the Yemen, Morocco, and Israel. Mysterious, darkly orchidaceous treats from the Mediterranean fringes, the Barbarous coast and hidden corners of Europe. There is Matbukha, Thigurt and Black Msabbaha; Aubergines are “josperized” and tuna gets the “Kubbehnyeah” treatment. Dishes that are difficult to pronounce and unfamiliar to the ear become a fluently aromatic, grand tour adventure once on the plate and in the mouth. This is the modern restaurant kitchen as entertainer, educator and provider — the humming, engine room powering up The Coal Office in the heart of King’s Cross.
All of proprietor Assaf Granit’s restaurants (eleven in total) are like this. From Machneyuda in Jerusalem to The Palomar and The Barbary in London, the kitchen is an open secret and the preparation of food central to the multi-sensory dining experience. “The open plan kitchen is an essential part of the design,” says Granit. “A kitchen is the best décor and the chefs are like an orchestra. It works because it creates an exciting atmosphere. The customer gets an immersive experience. They hear the shouting, see the movement, feel the energy, smell the aromas and see the colours.”
This heady combination of drama and cardamom, hot fuss and freekeh, has made Assaf Granit a bonafide culinary superstar — The Barbary (where Stella McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow have been spotted) was named restaurant of the year by Tatler, GQ and Time Out. Critics have called Granit’s food “thrillingly alien” and “shagadelic.” It’s also what made Granit Tom Dixon’s ideal collaborator when the designer was making plans for his new, 17,500 square feet brand home at Bagley Walk Arches, Coal Drops Yard.
Dixon was first introduced to the Israeli chef and restaurateur through the Tom Dixon brand’s investment partners NEO, which also has a stake in Granit’s Balagan diner in Paris. They met for dinner at The Palomar in Covent Garden, bonded over music (Dixon used to be bass player in the Notting Hill band Funkapolitan) and a love of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian food — Dixon was born in Sfax. “Until then, I only knew the King’s Cross area as the Eurostar terminal,” says Granit. “I used to come in from Paris, leave the train and get straight into a cab. I had no idea what was going on here.” Dixon took Granit on a tour, pointed out the Google building and the Skip Garden, explained the history of the site, its locomotive heritage and how the former coal yard office building had once been home to The Cross music venue. Granit, whose rowdy restaurants have been described as nightclubs, liked that.
Together they got busy creating a restaurant that comprised three long rooms and three different moods across three storeys. In the basement, it’s just six bar stools and a steely, industrial chic aesthetic. (Granit has nicknamed it “the nuclear reactor.”) The roof has a modern-concrete-and-windows vibe with an outdoor breakfast terrace while the first floor is all raw metal and exposed brickwork acknowledging the original use of the building. “The Coal Office building had burned down sometime during the 1970s leaving a shell so we wanted to keep as many original details as possible — old rendering, some surviving signage and bits of graffiti,” says Dixon.
“There’s a kitchen on each floor — the idea being that no matter where a customer was sitting, they’d always be in sight of the food’s preparation. We want to encourage interest and honesty, create an interaction between the chefs and the customers.” Everything from the lights to the crockery (hand thrown and kiln-fired on site by Central Saint Martin’s students in Dixon’s ceramics studio) was designed by the Tom Dixon studio and is available for sale in the adjacent store. The “Fat” dining chairs are a prototype that won’t be unveiled to the public until next year. “We’re using The Coal Office as a kind of live test lab for the furniture. If a chair can stand up to the robust treatment it gets in a restaurant it should be fine for home use, right?”
Like Dixon, who dropped out of Chelsea School of Art after six months, Granit is an instinctive, autodidactic talent. He never went to catering college, he didn’t serve an apprenticeship with Marco Pierre White or wash dishes at La Colombe d’Or. “I got kicked out of every school I went to,” says the Jerusalem-born man known to his friends as ‘Buffalo’. “My cooking skills were not acquired through formal education but from sticking close to my Polish grandmother and wandering through the different tastes of Jerusalem’s streets.” After a spell in the Israeli army, Granit worked at various restaurants before landing the job of head chef at Adom, a renowned Jerusalem eatery. He became a national figure when he won the TV cooking show Krav Sakinim (“Knife Fight”), Israel’s version of MasterChef.
With L’Escargot-trained Uri Navon and Yossi Elad as business partners, Granit found a market-side property and set up the Machneyuda restaurant. “We wanted to make a connection between the busy street culture of Jerusalem and our take on the European dining experience. So, it was ‘oyster on a freekeh base’ making its way to table five on my grandmother’s old brass tray.” Soon the Machneyuda group expanded with the kitchen bar Yudale, French restaurant Mona, The Culinary Workshop and the Talbiye wine bar. Granit’s restaurant group became famous not just for its food but also its animated staff — at Yudale, guests would dance on the tables to chef Tomer Amedi’s saucepan drum interludes. Amedi is now working the same percussive magic in London.
Coming to the UK capital in 2014 was, admits Granit, a gamble. Back then most Londoners’ only experience of Israeli-influenced cuisine was Ottolenghi. Basbousa and black couscous weren’t on the menu. “I thought the music would be too loud, my flavours too much. So, I turned it down,” says Granit who recently earned a five-star review for The Coal Office from the hard-to-please critic Fay Maschler. “But London is sophisticated. Londoners look at the menu longer and choose wisely.
They said, ‘we want the real thing, like you serve in Jerusalem… not the toned down version.’
This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.