Sakhr Al-Makhadi finds a creative slice of the Middle East beyond the shawarma stalls on Edgware Road.
London's new Arab flavour
London's Edgware Road has been dubbed the 23rd Arab state, and for good reason. Almost every restaurant, cafe and shop along this long, straight road is Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian or Iraqi. Stretching northwards from Hyde Park, it smells and sounds like no other street in London. There are the street-side shisha cafes, the shawarma stalls, and the groceries selling produce from back home.
The restaurants of Edgware Road were established by successive waves of Arabs who settled in London then tried to recreate a little bit of the Middle East in their cold new home. First it was the Lebanese escaping their civil war, then the Palestinians fleeing the first Intifada, next came the Iraqis during the first Gulf War. They've all contributed to making this a home-from-home. The places along Edgware Road are the London Arab food scene's great grandfather. Staid, conservative, set in their ways, and playing Fairuz on loop.
While it may look like this place has it all, for a real taste of London's new Arab flavour, you've got to take the more difficult option and walk away from Edgware Road.
You don't have to stray far - for my first taste of this, I'm only a few hundred metres from Edgware Road. Comptoir Libanais, tucked in just behind the elegant St Christopher's Place and next to the Selfridges department store, is the Arab community's rebellious granddaughter. The back wall is covered in a floor-to-ceiling pop-art mural by London-based Lebanese designer Rana Salam. There's more art plastered all over the tables, the cutlery is held in recycled tins of chickpeas and you are more likely to hear music by Nancy Ajram than Umm Kulthum.
"You've got places like Pizza Express for Italian food, Yo Sushi for Japanese, but you don't see anything like that for the food of our culture," says founder Tony Kitous. He wants to bring Arab culture to a wider audience. "You don't see many non-Arabs going out of their way to go to Edgware Road.
"I wanted to make something for everyone. I combined the food with the design, atmosphere and style of our region," he says. "I wouldn't say I made it sexy, I just made it accessible."
As we talk, his staff cover the table in food. "You've got to try this one," he says, handing me a plate of kibbe. Usually this would be lamb in a rolled bulgar-wheat ball but here it is replaced by aubergine.
"You know, in Edgware Road, they just make things for a Middle Eastern palate. Lebanese food in London isn't accessible for the Europeans," says Kitous. "For a lot of people in here, they are having their first Lebanese experience." And what an experience it is; a colourful tour of Beiruti pop culture. Finish with their special chocolate-covered baklava and the unusual apple, mint and cucumber juice.
Another person doing something a bit different with Middle Eastern food is James Walters who, with Jordanian chef Jad Al-Younis, set up Arabica to bring home-cooked, ethically sourced Middle Eastern cuisine to London's newly trendy farmers' markets.
On a crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon, I cross London Bridge in search of some Arab street food. Alongside stalls selling French cheese, and freshly made Italian egg pasta, the Arabica stand at Borough Market isn't hard to find. If the images of camels on the tarpaulin don't give it away, then the long snaking queue for their falafel sandwich will. But while the wrap may be their biggest seller, Arabica also has an interesting deli section. Come here for some of London's tastiest baklava (it's one of the few places you can get Arab sweets that haven't been produced in a factory), as well as their secret blend of zaatar, and jars of date and walnut chutney.
"We've giving ourselves the creative licence to have some fun with this food," says Walters. "Lebanese restaurants in London always stick to the past. There's no one pushing the boundaries."
"I sometimes have an idea to play with the ingredients of the East but create a brand new dish, and my Lebanese chefs say, 'Hang on, this isn't Lebanese food'. But just because your grandmother didn't make it, it doesn't mean that we can't create an Eastern-inspired dish."
One of the ideas that his chefs initially turned their noses up at was beetroot hummus. "We take beetroots, cook them, purée them, take the water out and put it through the hummus, so you get this lovely, sweet red hummus." It went on to become one of their biggest sellers, and is now widely imitated by British supermarkets. Look for their seasonal butternut squash muttabal, which is due to make a comeback soon. And their aubergine and pomegranate molasses.
The Arabica stall became such a hit that they soon needed a more permanent space. They've recently started selling in the Selfridges Food Hall, and they're about to open a restaurant in Soho.
You won't find any red hummus at Al-Waha, a super-conservative restaurant in Notting Hill, where the windows are covered by curtains, a la 1970. But what you will find is some of London's best Arab food.
It's one of the few places in the city where you can order muhammara, the wonderfully spicy red pepper and walnut dip. It's a Syrian speciality, because even though this place calls itself Lebanese, founder Mohammad Antabli hails from Damascus.
"When I came to this country 30 years ago, everything was marketed as Lebanese, although it was really Syrian," he says. "It's much easier to call it Lebanese. Syrian food is unheard of."
Al-Waha is repeatedly picked by the critics as one of London's best restaurants, and it's rare to find an empty table in here. Antabli puts down their popularity to the freshness of their ingredients. "We're a small restaurant, we can control the quality," he says.
Ask any Londoner where their favourite upmarket Arab restaurant is, and you'll rarely hear the same answer twice. The food all tastes so similar, and the menus look so identical that there are few stand-out choices. The award-winning Noura is an exception. After winning a string of prizes in Paris, Nader Bou Antoun brought his critically acclaimed restaurant to London. In the decade since the Belgravia branch opened, Noura has become the benchmark for Arab food in London, and has since opened three more locations across the city.
Sited on an unassuming side road just round the corner from Buckingham Palace, Noura Belgravia is the most elegant Lebanese option in town. With white tablecloths, straight-faced staff and suited-and-booted diners, this isn't a quick lunchtime snack option. But it is the place to come for some of the freshest Arab food in London. It doesn't come cheap, though. A tiny plate of hummus is £6.50 (Dh40), while mains come in at around £16 (Dh100).
It's worth every penny, though. The fatayer (cheese and spinach parcels) are fluffy, a welcome relief from the soggy pastries served at many other Lebanese restaurants. The meat is tender and juicy. And the desserts include some Arab dishes rarely found in London. Go for the aish el saraya, a Lebanese take on bread and butter pudding made with clotted cream.
From fine dining to market eating, I've been saving the best until last. While many Arab dishes are hard to make badly, it's surprisingly difficult to find a decent falafel in London. Mr Falafel, in Shepherd's Bush, is one of the few exceptions.
I'm driving west, away from Edgware Road, past the massive Westfield shopping centre to a place where the sprawling suburbs begin. This tiny family business is a no-frills plastic table cafe in a local market. Come here for the best wrap on this side of the Mediterranean: the falafels are fried fresh to order (in nearly every other place in London they are batch-cooked and reheated), and taste as fluffy and light as they do in Damascus.
But while the food is just as good as home, the menu is a bit of a shock to some Arab customers. "We had a genius idea," says Ahmad Yassine, a Palestinian from southern Lebanon who now runs the business with his father. "We looked at the Arab breakfast table - you'd have a bowl of hummus, a bowl of foul, pickles and olives, some cheese - things like that all on one table. So I thought to myself, why can't we combine all of these in one wrap?"
The Falafel Supreme (cheese, olives, avocado, pomegranate syrup, and fried aubergine, all wrapped in two types of bread and toasted with olive oil) was born. And the idea seems to have worked: it's their best seller.
Yassine admits it's mainly Westerners who try his more adventurous wrap, though. "We sell falafel according to accents," he says. "The minute a Lebanese person steps into the shop, and says 'Ateeni wahid faleefil', I know straight away where he's from, I make him the falafel he wants, I don't put fried aubergine in it, I don't put any hummus in, because I know he's going to frown at me."
London's adventurous new Arab food scene is more smiles than frowns right now. But you'll have to step out of your Edgware Road comfort zone to find it.
If you go
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to London cost from Dh3,490, including taxes.
The stay Double rooms at The Langham (www.langhamhotels.co.uk; 00 44 20 7636 1000), located behind Oxford Circus, cost from £300 (Dh1,700) per night, including taxes. The Infinity Suite (236 sq m), which costs from £9,000 (Dh51,100) per night, includes a chromotherapy bath, and is one of the largest in the UK.
The restaurants A mezze meal for two at Comptoir Libanais, 65 Wardour Street (www.lecomptoir.co.uk, 00 44 20 7935 1110) costs around £20 (Dh120). Al-Waha, 75 Westbourne Grove (www.alwaharestaurant.com, 00 44 20 7229 0806), offers a set dinner menu for two starting at £42 (Dh250). At Noura, 16 Hobart Place (www.noura.co.uk, 00 44 20 7235 9444),a meal for two costs £75 (Dh450).