“How do you feel about doing Arabica again tomorrow evening?” Pinged the Whatsapp message.
“Sounds like a plan.” Went my reply.
There’s enough choice in London these days, that returning to a new restaurant within 48 hours of a first visit feels fairly unusual. Unnecessary, even. But we’d had such an enjoyable meal a few hours before those messages were sent, that it made complete sense to go back almost immediately. To be honest, I was more surprised to be conversing with my sensible solicitor friend on Whatsapp, than I was the content and result of the exchange.
Arabica started trading as a meze and spice stall at Borough back in 1999. The business has evolved since those early days, to one that now includes a concession at Selfridges, wholesale trade, and catering for private jets. At the beginning of this month they branched out further, with a very committed dive into the world of restaurants. Their shiny new site is a railway arch off Rochester Walk, at the edge of the market where it all began.
I can see the raised eyebrows and hear the tired “another bloody railway arch” groans.
But this is a little different to the recent colonisation of arches in Dalston, Bethnal Green, London Fields, even nearby Maltby Street. Borough is a highly sanitised area. The grimy, trendy period has long passed. It’s now, just, well, very nice. Arabica’s interior mirrors the location. It’s light, airy, spacious and smooth. This is industrial chic in its safest, most grown-up guise: sure, there are exposed bricks, polished concrete floor and shiny steel open kitchen at the end of a long bar; but there’s also Aesop hand wash in the bogs. It’s not edgy. It’s pleasingly rounded.
The menu is large and covers a wide range of meze (small plates to share are, for once, appropriate to the food). If anything, that leaves far too much choice. Nine sections include ‘fried’, ‘dips’, ‘clay oven’, ‘pulses’, ‘raw / cured’, ‘stove / grill’, each with around five dishes to choose from. Make your life easier and skim past the ‘salads’ and ‘nibbles’.
On the first occasion, we had top class muhammara. The red pepper and nut dip was the colour of burnt amber, and vibrant and zingy on the tongue. We tried two types of kibbeh. Both lamb and spinach options were dark brown, deliciously filled, deep fried, teardrop shaped bar snacks of joy. Zeren Wilson, who expertly advised on the wine list, keeps saying to me “all day, every day” when he talks about the kibbeh. I’m inclined to agree.
There was hummus with lamb fillet and Hook Farm ghee (British produce, often Borough trader sourced, is a theme). Let’s call this Dirty Hummus. For whilst the puree was classically smooth, slick and tahini based, the ghee added extreme richness and a spot of guilt. This paste ain’t for Gwyneth. It’s naughty. I loved it.
Lahmacun (flat bread with tomato, spiced lamb, peppers and onion) was wolfed down. Ditto lamb and liver taouk with walnut harissa – a refined red meat and offal kebab. Ditto the extremely more-ish fried potato, pepper and chilli batata harra. Oh, and ditto a gutsy bottle of Tuscan red.
Roll on forty-eight hours, and stand out dishes included magdous, which is pickled baby aubergine; mekanek – sticky Lebanese lamb sausages in a sweet, jammy, caramelised gravy; and another flat bread (this time man’ousheh) topped with zesty, tingling, Jordanian thyme heavy za’atar. Beef and bone marrow kofte kebabs were soft, juicy, cooked rare (as promised) and packing flavour. I remember an excellent yoghurt and oregano coated chicken wing too.
We’ve reached the part of the write-up where I look back and panic about being overly glowing.
So it’s worth mentioning that when the food comes, it comes out thick and fast. On the second visit in particular, the flow of our meal felt a little too rushed; in an ideal world, delivery would be a little more contoured. Dessert might’ve padded things a little, but I’m yet to be offered sight of a sweet menu.
Perhaps the most obvious nit pick is on the subject of cost. One friend remarked that “everything is delicious, but you don’t get a lot for your cash”. I’m in two minds here.
On the one hand, these certainly aren’t Edgware Road prices (or portions). We’re talking around £10 for protein options, which are not on the large side, and 5s, 6s and 7s for most of the other dishes. As you’re ordering, there’s certainly a worry that this is going to add up rather too quickly.
But on the other, this is not the Edgware Road. Ingredients used are well sourced and spenny (Label Anglais chicken, Herdwick lamb, etc.), the conception and delivery of the food is thoughtful and refined, and, of course, there is a cost to sitting in a lovely space, being served by good people. Perhaps more significantly, looking at the meal in the round, enough food and half a bottle of wine per person came to between £40 and £45 a head. On both occasions. Which is fairly standard for central London.
In any event, as I look through the menu online, I’m drawn to go again. Soon. And that’s surely the acid test? Quality food from the Levant is still fairly underexposed in Britain. I like that Arabica doesn’t fuss, mess, deconstruct or over-style the food; there’s mature confidence in the breadth and quality of authentic cuisine. Modernisation comes by way of sourcing and paired back, simple presentation. How enjoyable to just get dinner, rather than an ‘experience’.
It’s a good’n, this. Plain vanilla. With sumac sprinkles.
My Whatsapp pal returns tonight.
Arabica in 3 words
Levant. Eat. Repeat.
With modest booze, £35-50 pp.
www.arabicabarandkitchen.com - 3 Rochester Walk, Borough Market, SE1 9AF - 02030115151