Vegetarian London: Arabica Bar And Kitchen Review
In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Located in the modern-day London souk that’s the Borough Market, this contemporary Levantine restaurant and bar opened to generally enthusiastic reviews last summer. It’s owned by James Walters, co-founder of the Arabica Food & Spice Company, which started as a Borough Market stall around 15 years ago selling a small selection of meze from a cool box on a trestle table. It’s certainly come a long way, as it now has a presence in other food markets, various food festivals, and also Selfridges. Walters, together with his former business partner Jad al Younis, once owned the short-lived Café Arabica in Notting Hill before selling it and moving on. The company’s snazzily-packaged artisanal ingredients, sourced from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, are used in the kitchen here; and a few are invitingly displayed to one side and available to buy.
The stylish venue is housed in a Victorian railway arch lined with exposed brick walls and industrial pipes, and furnished with vintage duck egg-blue leather banquettes, small booths and old-fashioned café-style wooden furniture. There’s a bar area to one side, an open-view kitchen and, suspended from the ceiling, lights that look akin to glittery basketball nets. The design is a London take on 1960s Beirut. The menu, peppered with classic and contemporary street food from the East Mediterranean, is divided into categories like dips, soups and salads as well as cooking techniques such as clay oven, grill and charcoal. There’s plenty of veggie choice in most of the sections.
First, a trio of dips. Studded with pomegranate seeds, moutabel features gently-smoked aubergines with tahini; and koosa is a simple but sunny combination of char-grilled courgettes and strained yoghurt lifted by a fresh, zesty blast of lemon and mint. We’re less keen on the overly smooth baby-food texture of blanched almond, sourdough and sherry vinegar tarator, though it’s attractively jazzed up with red grapes and mint leaves and tastes fine. The dainty dips, served in tiny saucers, are followed by a hefty kibbeh: a substantial bulgar wheat croquette stuffed with an aubergine and walnut mix, made tangy with pomegranate molasses and mellowed by sweet caramelised onions.
Our waiter had insisted that we order one of the breads from the clay oven section — and we’re glad we plumped for the freshly baked Turkish pide the size of a mini-baguette. It’s filled with roasted squash, orange flower honey, and feta and goats’ cheeses, with a pleasant crunch of hazelnuts and peppery sprigs of watercress. It’s an imaginative Middle East-meets-France flavour combination that works well together. Honey-roasted parsnips sprinkled with dukkah — the Egyptian condiment of coarsely crushed spices, herbs, seeds and nuts that’s becoming increasingly popular — is a simple but effective idea that we’ll be copying at home.
Makloubeh is normally an upside-down rice dish, in which the grain is layered with vegetables (and often meat), and then flipped over to reveal a browned crust. Here, it’s an Egyptian-influenced rice pilaf with fried aubergines, cauliflower florets and caramelised onions, headily fragrant with bay leaves, cassia, cardamom, Persian dried lime, dried black lemon – and something called ‘asfor’, which we’re told is a cinnamon from Madrid. The magic of Levantine vegetarian cooking is in transforming such everyday ingredients into something special, with layers of flavours and intriguing complexity. We can never resist light, creamy, soothing mouhalabieh — a blancmange-like milk pudding with several regional variations around the Middle East — whenever it’s on a menu, and the version here doesn’t disappoint. Aromatic with orange blossom jam, delicately flavoured with mastic from the Chios Island and studded with roasted hazelnuts, it’s further prettified with pistachios and diced poached quince and has an almost perfumed flavour. We also like the beguiling taste of vanilla halva ice cream and strawberry and rosewater sorbet.
This sounds like a lot of food for two people, but the portion sizes are meagre — and in the case of the dips, really miniscule (barely a couple of tablespoons). The wine list has a few bottles from Lebanon and Israel and the rest from around the world — but we opted for soft drinks like refreshing Lebanese lemonade, plus punchy Middle Eastern-inspired cocktails. We paid over £40 each, which is a lot for the quantity – and, in some cases, the quality. Although some of the dishes are exquisite, others such as the kibbeh are a bit rough around the edges; and the own-made lavash bread, which comes free in a paper bag, is little better than a supermarket version.
Service a strong point though: staff are mostly well-informed (or will readily ask the chef if you have questions), very welcoming and on-the-ball. Bookings are supposed to be time-restricted to an hour and a half — but we happily lingered during our Saturday lunchtime visit, when it wasn’t overly busy and nobody rushed us. We have resolved to preface our future Borough Market shopping trips with their weekend breakfasts.
Arabica Bar & Kitchen, 3 Rochester Walk, Borough Market, SE1 9AF. Tel: 020 3011 5151. We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drink and service. Images supplied by the restaurant.
Last Updated 11 March 2015