Friday, 29 May 2015
Berber & Q, Haggerston
As East London gentrifies and rents go up, the innovators and risk-takers get pushed further out into the suburbs. Only a few years ago Shoreditch was the buzzing heart of the London restaurant revolution, where the Young Turks served modern British tasting menus in a speakeasy above a Spitalfields pub and Abiye Cole sold his Big Apple Hot Dogs outside the fire station on Old Street. Now, Big Apple are a feature of menus across the capital and Isaac McHale has a Michelin star.
And I'm a huge fan of both and good luck to them of course, but while Shoreditch settles into its role as the New Soho, something stirs in Haggerston. In a old railway arch (the East London trendy restaurant venue du jour), candle-lit and cacophonic, is Berber & Q, who at first glance are ticking so many off the hipster-restaurant checklist (men with fancy facial hair shaking cocktails, craft beer, sharing plates) it threatens to collapse into parody. But fortunately, the food they're serving is anything but clichéd; in fact I'd go so far as to say it's the most exciting new restaurant since you could get a pint on Curtain Road for under £4.50. Which was a very long time ago.
Without wanting to trivialise the extraordinary work of the kitchen staff at Berber & Q, an easy shortcut to describe what they're doing is probably a "Lebanese Smoking Goat". Which is to say they've taken all the best flavours and spices of a certain cuisine (in this case Middle Eastern/North African) and matched it with modern low'n'slow smoking techniques and an energetic youthful service. A good example of this is the short-rib, meltingly tender like the finest Pitt Cue examples yet boosted by a date syrup glaze which lends the whole thing an extra level of exotic Eastern promise.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First came a beautiful plate of chunky house hummus, studded with marinated chickpeas and pine nuts and dressed with half a soft(ish) boiled egg. Alongside that, creme fraiche with harissa oil and crushed tomato. Familiar ingredients perhaps to anyone with a passing interest in Middle Eastern food, but as you can hopefully see even from my rubbish iPhone pictures, there's a certain rustic style and confidence here you don't find in your average Edgware Road joint. Oh and the house pitta is fresh from the oven, soft and thick and instantly making a complete mockery of anywhere serving those horrid dry flat-pack things that smell of glue.
From here on, we moved from the (relative) light of the bar area to a dark table by the wall, with a predictable spike in the hideousness of my photography, so please just imagine these dark splodges look like food. Smoked beans, lamb neck and crisp onion had that dense, oily meatiness of a kind of Boston baked beans, only one from the Levant. With the fireworks elsewhere on the menu this is a dish that runs the risk of being forgotten, but everything that's good about Berber & Q go about things is present in this little bowl of smoked beans and silky, fatty lamb. It was glorious.
Grilled asparagus with mustard seeds were good as you might expect, only is seared into my memory for re-introducing me to toum, a startling garlic sauce so strong it burned like chilli in the mouth. And like the best chilli sauces, it was incredibly addictive; I'd like to apologise now to my Uber driver that night, the journey to Battersea can't have been pleasant.
Blackened aubergine "salad" was a single (large) aubergine, halved and grilled, and dressed with garlic yoghurt, tomato pulp and fresh herbs. I usually hate aubergine but even I could appreciate this.
Highlight of all the excellent vegetable dishes though was the cauliflower. Berber & Q keep theirs in a rack above the main charcoal grill so that the smoke and flavour from whatever's being cooked below infuses into the vegetables above. Roasted to the point of crunchy & carbonised, then dressed with a myriad of exotic herbs and spices including pomegranete seeds, flowers and tahini, this was probably my favourite dish of all, and this on a menu that contains chicken wings.
Oh yes, almost forgot, the meat. All of the "meat" section of the menu is presented on one tray, alongside spiced salt, harissa, pickles and all sorts of extra grilled vegetables and fresh herbs. For the pulled lamb (Mechoui) we were instructed to wrap up the meat in a lettuce leaf with some salt and harissa, and very good it was too. Harissa chicken wings were plump and had a fantastic crisp skin, but seemed to suffer from weak bones - I found more than one that had shattered, revealing unpleasant brown marrow.
Oddly though, for a (sort of) BBQ restaurant, and even more oddly for a Middle Eastern joint, the meat wasn't really the main event. Far more exciting to me were the salads and grilled vegetables that seemed to be firing off in even more exciting and unexpected places with each new dish that arrived. The short ribs and wings were excellent, no doubt, but thanks to Pitt Cue and Smokehouse we've already seen those. What we've not seen - at least I haven't - is a menu that treats vegetables with equal, in fact you could argue more, reverence, to the extent that if the meat section was removed entirely (lovely though they are) I doubt you'd miss them at all.
There's plenty more to talk about - I've only mentioned about half the menu, and haven't even touched on the cocktails - but you will have seen where this is going so I'll let you discover the rest yourself. Because if there's one thing you need to do it's get in the 'Q at Berber; food like this can be enjoyed by anyone and deserves to be eaten by everyone. It's a confident rebuttal to anyone who's dared say they were tired of London's restaurants, their lack of originality, their lack of confidence. I've seen the future, and it's blackened over charcoal and doused in toum and hiding in a dark railway arch in Haggerston.
I was invited to Berber & Q initially, but liked it so much I went back the very next day and paid for it. Hence the bill from day 2 (above) not matching the dishes we ate on day 1. Anyway who cares, just go, you'll love it. And if the queue's too big, use my app to find somewhere else amazing.