Of the many meals that might stand out during a dead-of-winter visit to London, a raw fennel salad perhaps is the weakest contender. Yet as I ate one creamy-spicy-crunchy-tender-savory-sweet bite after another, I knew two things to be absolute: This was the best thing I’d eaten in a long while. And I would be back before the end of my five-day trip to eat it again.
Welcome to Coal Office, a sleek yet rustic King’s Cross outpost of Middle Eastern cooking where the people are beautiful, the music pulses and the food is bold, brash and bright. Cocktails spiked with pomegranate molasses or toasted chestnuts. Eggplant roasted and doused with fresh dukkah and yogurt. Soft pretzels with a delicious mess of harissa, za’atar and tahini.
And, of course, that fennel salad. A tangle of thinly shaved fresh fennel dressed with a simple blend of spicy harissa, cooling yogurt and bright lemon juice. Mixed in: chunks of chopped almonds, thin slices of green chilies, juicy orange segments, briny green olives, fresh herbs. The result was a cacophony of flavors and textures that somehow all harmonized.
They worked because chef Assaf Granit—who was raised in Jerusalem and pilots a slew of restaurants across London and Israel—understands the art of balancing taste and texture. It’s evident in every dish. Crunchy pomegranate seeds on tender eggplant. The sweet pretzel against the savory sesame tahini. The rich chestnuts against bittersweet Campari.
He wasn’t at the restaurant that night, but his manager was able to walk me through the makings of the salad, a wonderful combination of high and low. Every bite contained contrasts that kept me coming back for more.
At Milk Street, this was a simple dish to replicate. We liked the fennel shaved about ⅛ inch thick, then tossed with lemon juice and salt before a gentle massage. A 30-minute rest resulted in tender-crisp slices that played perfectly against the creamy-spicy dressing, crunchy almonds and sweet oranges.
The result was nearly as addictive as the version I’d eaten—twice!—in London. The only element missing? The dessert of tahini ice cream. Don’t even get me started about that.