Where would vegetarians be without houmous and falafel? Lost, bereft and hangry, because the chickpea has generously nourished generations of meat-dodgers. But come to meat-free Middle Eastern small-plates restaurant Bubala – newly opened in Soho, and joining its Spitalfields sister of the same name – and you'll find that its houmous and falafel (although thoroughly delicious) aren’t even close to being the most exciting things on the menu.
Bubala is named for a Yiddish term of endearment, so it’s entirely appropriate that they’ve lavished a lot of love on their latkes
For starters, there’s the surprising baba ghanoush. Here, this aubergine dip comes puréed to a fine silk, and covered in a rich green lake of curry-leaf oil that added a nose-filling fragrance to its smoky notes. There’s the dolls’ house-sized leek kebab that looked like something a sadistic carnivore would make to torment their vegetarian friend at a barbecue, but which offered an exhilarating burst of sweet-sour flavour thanks to its tangy mango marinade. And then there were the messy, memorable sweetcorn ribs. Plant-based menus are often packed with things optimistically calling themselves ‘ribs’ or ‘steaks’, but lacking any kind of textural heft to back that up. Bubala’s sweetcorn ribs are a joyful exception: they've hacked a cob into sticky, charred strips that came drenched in lip-smacking chilli and garlic sauce, begging to be eaten with caveman vigour.
‘Bubala’ is a Yiddish term of endearment, so it’s entirely appropriate that they’ve lavished a lot of love on their latkes. These latkes arrived as deep-fried cuboid shapes, crafted from confit potato that was precisely layered instead of grated. They’d probably horrify a traditionalist but they were a carb-lover’s dream, especially when drenched in the accompanying garlic sauce.
Hefty latkes aside, Bubala excels at zingy, light dishes that sing with fruity notes of mango or citrus. The balance isn’t always quite right: the mushroom pâté’s gentle umami hit was overwhelmed by the sweetness of the accompanying barbary jam. Still, pretty much anything here tasted good when it was lathered over Bubala’s signature laffa, a charred, thick and chewy flatbread with personality to spare.
This is generous, lovable and accessible dining. Even ingredients that sound baffling on the menu (like amba or bkeila) are enthusiastically explained by friendly staff, and make immediate sense on the plate. The restaurant’s modish pink-toned plaster walls and tiled floors soon echo (and not quite as deafeningly as you might fear) with the sounds of a stylish crowd of diners fighting politely-but-messily over the last smear of pilpelchuma.
It’s traditional to end any review of a vegetarian restaurant with some kind of musing about whether it would convert a carnivore but frankly, who cares? There are already more than enough eager punters darkening Bubala’s doors. Get your hands mucky and join them.
The vibe A chic, buzzy Soho spot that’s perfect for dinner with friends.
The food Middle Eastern small plates that hum with unusual-but-delicious flavours.
The drink A substantial array of natural and low-intervention European wines, plus a short cocktail list.
Time Out tip? Skip dessert and go in hard on the dips: you won’t regret it.