Akub, or cardoon, isn’t actually on the menu at Akub, chef Fadi Kattan’s Palestinian restaurant on a residential backstreet in Notting Hill. ‘I’m trying to find a supplier,’ Kattan told me on the steps of the townhouse where he has set up shop for his second restaurant, following Fawda in the West Bank. He was braving the January cold in just a T-shirt. It’s not that cardoons are impossible to find – the stalks are eaten across Europe, especially in Spain, where they are considered delicacies. But Palestinians eat them differently. ‘We eat the flowers,’ explained Kattan, eyes alight with the thought of the bright, artichoke-like thistles.
Inside, I was led up two further flights of stairs, winding past olive branches and warmly lit dining rooms, to the top of the house. Tucked between an inverted butterfly roof and a wall draped with arabesque William Morris pomegranates, I felt as if I’d been given the key to a secret garden. I wondered what fruit it would bear.
The answer was three perfectly plump blueberry-round aubergines, their bellies slit and filled with floral, lightly pickled carrots and glistening green beads of coriander that popped boisterously in my mouth. Visually, and because of its citrus fragrance, the filling reminded me a little of French lentil salad, and I wondered if Franco-Palestinian chef Kattan was making a deliberate nod to that classic. But I also wondered why this unmistakably summer-y dish was on the menu right now. It was pushing zero degrees outside, and if I’m going to eat aubergine, I’d at least like it to be warm and oily.
Had I put on rose-tinted glasses or was the hilbeh baba so light and fluffy it literally quivered under the weight of a Marie Antoinette wig of whipped cream, pistachios and petals?
Soon my winter-tummy prayers were answered: flaky pastry, twice over. The shish barak were parcels of delicately spiced pumpkin, which fell like ripe persimmon flesh from the irregular folds when bitten into. A larger parcel followed: this time sprinkled with magic purple dust and enclosing the gift of musakhan, the chicken, sumac and sweet-onion jewel of Palestinian cuisine. Dagga ghazzawieh – spicy Gazan salad of winter tomatoes, chilli, dill, and plenty of good olive oil, made a well-judged foil to the aromatic meat.
Dessert didn’t so much travel as float across the room. Had I put on rose-tinted glasses or was the hilbeh baba so light and fluffy it literally quivered under the weight of a Marie Antoinette wig of whipped cream, pistachios and petals? Chocolate crémant, meanwhile, was overshadowed by the curl of tahini ice cream that, like a tub of halva bought from the corner shop, was best inhaled first and contemplated later.
While Akub isn’t the first proudly Palestinian restaurant in London, or even in Notting Hill – the nearby Maramia Café has been serving up homely Palestinian dishes for nearly two decades – it is still a rare thing. A confident newcomer that’s free and creative in its expression and storytelling, it’s worth remembering that for many Palestinian chefs – especially those based in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – such expression is achieved despite the oppressive conditions of the longest military occupation in modern history. That makes a restaurant like Akub all the more worth celebrating.
As I left, Kattan told me he thinks he might have found a grower of cardoons in Devon. When the akub flowers do hit his menu, I’ll be first in line.
The vibe Contemporary Palestinian cuisine in a Victorian townhouse.
The food Lens-friendly small plates in pretty pinks, yellows, and greens. Bold Palestinian flavours as well as aesthetics, with plates by third-generation ceramicist Nur Minawi in Jaffa.
The drink Domaine des Tourelles wines, from vines grown in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, are the winners here, but there’s also a compact cocktail bar in the basement.
Time Out tip Skip the aubergines and go straight for the pastries.