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Will Self: Authentic, schmauthentic at Mishkin’s

The odour when I walked in the door was insufficiently schmaltzy and old-mannish – and the decor was way too studied in its dishabille.

Happy birthday to the hegemon! I’m sitting with Tony Lacey, my long-time publisher at Penguin – who was responsible for ushering a collection of these columns into electronic print – in Mishkin’s on the east side of . . . Covent Garden. It’s the Fourth of July and it was Tony’s idea that we celebrate my American heritage. Mishkin’s advertises itself as “a kind of Jewish deli with cocktails”, so presumably it isn’t named after the Christlike protagonist of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The plate-glass window at the front is stencilled with “gin” and “meatloaf”, which is about as implausible a culinary coupling as it’s possible to imagine.

The rest of the room is bare brickwork with old boards nailed up against it; some large booth seats surrounded by vinyl-covered banquettes and some smaller wooden ones. A zinc-topped bar is overseen by anglepoise lamps. Tony is drinking what looks like real lemonade out of a jam jar. “Whassat?” I ask him and he laughs, “It’s called a Will Skidelsky but why they’d want to name a lemonade drink after the literary editor of the Observer is beyond me . . .” Darrell the waiter supplies the answer, but first, scanning the menu – salt beef, schmaltz herring, chicken liver, all that sorta mishegas – I ask him: “This is like a Jewish American deli experience, yeah?” He concedes that it is; “So,” I press on, “you’re telling me that my food is going to be touched and handled by actual Jews?”

City of gins

To give Darrell credit, he doesn’t bat an eyelid, despite being only around five: “Um, no,” he says, “in fact I don’t think there’s a single Jewish person in the kitchen.” As for the lemonade drink, it turns out – natch – that bookman Skidelsky is a mucker of Mishkin’s owner, one Russell Norman, who also helms a number of other trendy eateries in central London, all of which – in their several ways – are deliciously, pungently, piquantly fake. Obviously I knew Mishkin’s was a put-up job the second I saw “gin” – my mother always used to maintain that there was no such thing as a Jewish alcoholic but while that may be an overstatement, the only liquor I can remember in Jewish restaurants was grotesquely sweet Israeli wine.

There was this and there was the odour when I walked in the door – insufficiently schmaltzy and old-mannish – and the decor, which was way too studied in its dishabille. Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard in LA – which has to be, by reason of longevity alone, the quintessential example of the type Mishkin’s is aiming at – is a synthetic symphony of muted and smooth surfaces. Boho it is not. Then there’s the clientele, which should include a couple of tables surrounded by Walter Matthau/ George Burns, Sunshine Boys types, a-kvetching and a-picking of their teeth.

Bowelled out

While Darrell goes off to fetch me a Skidelsky, Tony and I recount our ailments. I have exciting news: the stomach ache I chronicled in Real Meals got worse until I ended up howling in bed with my colon in spasm. The croaker prescribed anti-spasmodic medication but after a long dark night of the soul on the web, I had to concede that I had a malaise with the disgusting appellation “irritable bowel syndrome”. I’d always assumed IBS was one of those catch-alls that malingerers battened on to as an excuse for their laziness and neurasthenia but now I had the damn thing myself, I was utterly convinced of its veracity.

So convinced, that that very morning I’d had an appointment with a dapper Scots dietician who instructed me in the virtuous properties of a low-Fodmap diet, which aims to reduce the intake of short-chain carbohydrates that irritate the bowel. It was love at first sight – as Joseph Heller would say – the first time I saw the low-Fodmap diet, I fell in love with it. It was so random: onions are out, vinegar is in; honey is bad, refined sugar is good – that I could see it would provide me with inexhaustible opportunities for being a fussy eater and so return me to the psychic arms of my long-dead but formerly doting Jewish mother.

So it turns out Mishkin’s is the perfect place for a Dependence Day lunch, and Darrell doesn’t mind as it takes me half an hour to order, flicking between the menu and my diet book. What a mensch (not, thankfully, of the Louise variety). As for the food, it’s fine but then that doesn’t matter much, it’s the authenticity of the experience that I crave.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis