A wave of restaurants is introducing Londoners to the shared history – and palates – of the Middle East.
“Food in London? It’s the best in the world,” says Louai Roumani, a banker turned food entrepreneur from Syria. “And for Arab cuisine, it’s easily the best place in the world to eat outside the Middle East. The quality is genuinely impressive.” It wasn’t always thus. While in the 1950s, the Edgware Road region was already known as Little Beirut, more serious Arab immigration began during the oil boom of the 1970s – and with it came food, which at the time would have been impossibly exotic to British palates. “As far as I know, the first real restaurant was Fahradine in Green Park,” says Mahmoud Alkhlaifaoui, general manager of Ishbilia restaurant in Mayfair, one of the finest Lebanese restaurants in the city. “That opened in the 1970s and was mainly visited by Arabs in London and the odd American, but it did OK. It was the place royal families would visit.” As the number of visitors from the Middle East increased, so too did the restaurants. My father, Mohamed Alkhlaifaoui, opened Ishbilia in 1998 and since then, we’ve seen more restaurants open. The food has grown in popularity and become an international draw, driven by people in the UK and tourists coming in to try our food.”
Ishbilia has grown from having 45 seats at its launch to recently buying the property next door to them and feeding around 140 people. “We could’ve opened more branches, but my father wanted to keep quality high – and the best way to keep standards up was to stay with one kitchen.” While the numbers have grown, the cuisine is, in general, still recognizable. This is partly because British palates have expanded outwards, seeking the exotic, and partly because the standards of cooking are high.
“In London, the Middle Eastern food scene has stayed traditional,” Alkhlaifaoui says. “We still have the same dishes we’ve been serving for years. My father is still the chef and he doesn’t really want to talk about fusion or modernizing the menu. We do what we do very well. We still import 70% of our ingredients from Syria. I don’t really like to use the word ‘trendy’ but our food has become more popular.” Middle Eastern cuisine has become more than trendy in the capital. Every tube stop is near a Lebanese cafe, every supermarket sells a salad with variations of falafel, bulgur wheat, and hummus. Fried chicken restaurants in hip Shoreditch are serving Moroccan pastillas and high-end restaurants like Marcus Wareing’s two Michelin starred restaurant Marcus dishes up spiced Arab-tinged (and halal) lamb as a showpiece on a tasting menu. There are numerous reasons for this takeover, according to Roumani, who set up his food delivery and catering business in 2015. “Our food is not fussy. It’s all about sharing, informality, and experience – and it’s healthy,” he says. “Take a grain like freekeh. It’s something my grandmother would cook so it’s not particularly exciting but for people in the UK, who are discovering it now, it’s a new and exciting health food.”
Arab food brings stories to be told, which fascinate people who live in the city. “We recently did an evening of Syrian food and culture at the Leighton House Museum,” says Roumani. “We not only served the food, we also explained the provenance and the history.” The event sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. British food writer Josh Barrie believes that experience is crucial to the popularity of the cuisine. “No one wants to be sat at a starchy tablecloth and be fed small portions by a snooty waiter,” he says. “That model is dying in modern cities. The generosity of Middle Eastern food, the fun, the sharing aspect is perfect for younger diners who want to have more than a meal, they want a good time.” Barrie says that London is yet to appreciate how welcoming Middle Eastern restaurants are. “There’s been a democratization of food through hipster places and burger bars selling affordable, quality food. But these spots still have a cliquey element to them, whereas Arab restaurants do hospitality as it should be done. You go to places like Al Waha, Honey & Co., or Momos and there’s a joy to eating the food and being appreciated as a customer. These places do that better than anywhere.” One potential downside to this recent upsurge in popularity is that in morphing into the mainstream, it has been adapted into dishes which are far from authentic. “There is a tendency to sprinkle za’atar or pomegranates on, say, a green salad and call it ‘Arab,’” laughs Reem Kassis, author of The Palestinian Table. “The restaurant scene in a city like London is cutthroat. You’re constantly under pressure to keep it fresh, keep it modern, and keep it interesting. This drives the scene forward but it also means you can end up with dishes that claim to be Middle Eastern, but aren’t. It can taste really good, but it’s not really our food. Does that matter in the end? No, not at all. We should be rightly proud of our food and how it can bring so much pleasure to so many people.”
AT THE TABLE
Launched in 2016 as London’s first gourmet kebab house. le Bab received rave reviews for its lokma (”doughnuts”) filled with a rich and creamy chicken liver parfait. It quickly became a favorite with locals. Eatlebab.com
Bahraini native Roaya Saleh opened this traditional Bahraini restaurant last year. Serving excellent salads and fish for lunch, its also become renowned for its breakfasts. Villamamas.com
A new chain of two small but popular restaurants dishing up big flavors in Beirut street food at reasonable prices. The Soho branch has a terrific kibbe nayyeh. Yalla-yalla.co.uk
…AND ONE OLD FAVORITE
One of the original Lebanese restaurants in London, started in 1981, Maroush remains hugely popular because of its super-fresh mezze. Tom Cruise eats the chicken wings whenever he is in town. Maroush.com
Originally printed in the Vogue Man Arabia Spring/Summer 2018 issue.
Words by Jon Horsely.