Outside of the Edgware Road, London’s Levantine restaurants tend to be basic cafés or marble palaces built to attract Gulf money, but Arabica is neither: it’s a fashionably modern place in a railway arch, attracting people who are interested in trying new flavour combinations. The Borough Market location is, of course, perfect for food lovers. Nearby you can shop for victuals, then come here to drop your bags and get pampered by the attentive staff. Arabica started out as a market stall selling imported Middle Eastern provisions; now this lovely newish restaurant (opened in summer 2014) showcases the same ingredients on their menu, while you can still buy pretty jars, dried spices and other edibles from the front counter.
First things first: Berber & Q is not the place if you want a quiet chitchat, or if you’re one of those chronic hand-washers who can’t touch anything sticky. This stripped-back, under-the-arches Haggerston spot (near neighbour to Tonkotsu East) is loud and dark; food comes heaped on sharing trays, and eating with fingers is encouraged. Flavours are Middle Eastern and smoky, but unlike most grill joints, it’s the vegetarian dishes that really shine. The deliciously charred cauliflower shawarma, with its balance of sweetness and smoke, softness and crunch, is mind-blowingly good, but don’t overlook the tahini-slathered, pine nut-strewn hummus either. Team it with a cocktail – we love the Haggerstoned, a citrusy muddle of tequila, green Chartreuse, pistachio syrup and orange bitters.
If you’re in Fitzrovia, for any reason at all, make a beeline for this little Israeli-run café. The menu is full of homely Middle Eastern dishes alive with colour and texture. The husband-and-wife team who run the place have impressive credentials as the ex-head-chef at Ottolenghi and executive chef at Nopi. Their idea here is to create dishes inspired by the food they grew up with, everything from what their mums made to the street food of Jerusalem. It’s all made fresh on the premises, and the window is filled with breads, pastries and exotic jams.
Credited with making deli dining a fashionable pursuit, Yotam Ottolenghi continues to wow the capital with his big, delicious flavours, drawn from the Med, the Middle East and beyond. Salads change seasonally but might include braised artichokes with freekeh grains and herbs, or pan-fried Brussel sprouts and shallots with pomegranate and purple basil. Given the casual ambience, the prices can be a surprise, but as with all things of exceptional quality, you get what you pay for. And the Soho outpost, Nopi, more of a ‘proper’ restaurant, is much more expensive.
Ever since Yotam Ottolenghi first introduced Londoners to the notion of ‘Jerusalem’ food (modern, non-kosher Israeli cooking) we haven’t been able to get enough of it. Just look at Palomar. In its opening week it was full of homesick Israelis tucking into dishes influenced by the Levant, North Africa and southern Spain. Within weeks, though, they’d been elbowed out by native Soho-ites, squeezing onto the cramped no-bookings counter seats (warning: you’re likely to get seriously jostled) or booking weeks in advance for the small back room (less lively, but more comfortable). The downside: tables are now turned every two hours, and service can occasionally feel muddled.
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