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Chifafa

Chifafa

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You don’t mess with a man’s kebab.  No, that’s not a euphemism.  This was a piece of advice given to me by my teenage crush John, back when I used to hang out in the dive bars and clubs of Newport.  You see, John was more interested in his post-club styrofoam container of kebab meat and chips than he was in talking to me so, in a fit of pique, I knocked it out of his hands and on to the floor.  It did not have the desired effect.  With his faith in the five second rule clearly intact, John gathered his food off the pavement and so spoke those words of wisdom.  I have never forgotten them.  Just as I have never forgotten all those awful kebabs I ate in days gone by – much as I would like to.  So would a trip to Chifafa – London’s first gourmet kebab restaurant – convince me that kebabs are worth eating sober?

I recently met with Nick Green, co-founder of Chifafa, over lunch in his Clerkenwell restaurant.  Nick is a brave, brave man.  A former journalist, he decided to open a restaurant with absolutely no experience whatsoever.  And he didn’t go for a nice, safe restaurant either; something like a burger bar or “modern European”.  Nope, he chose to open a restaurant specialising in kebabs.  Nick believes that the kebab is actually a bit of an unsung hero.  Meat, salad, bread.  Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with these three things.  In fact, a meal made of of these three things can actually be rather healthy – if it’s done right.  And there’s the kicker.  That classic image of the dirty post-club kebab just makes you think of the sweaty looking “elephant leg”, chips and maybe a token bit of salad.  No-one cares where the meat is from.  A simple dish ends up being lazy and unpleasant.

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So Nick’s challenge is to make a kebab as good as it can possibly be.  This extends to the entire experience.  You won’t find an elephant leg in Chifafa, nor will you find any styrofoam or strip lighting.  The trendy Clerkenwell vibe is evident in spades.  The restaurant is urban, industrial and buzzing.  People are queuing almost out of the door.  This bodes well.  Could these kebabs really be *that* good?  The menu itself is simple: five different types of kebab, rice boxes, salad boxes, sides.  Being an indecisive sort of person, I was glad to see that two of my favourite fillings were available as a combo – lamb and halloumi.  It arrived piping hot, was roughly the size of my forearm and stuffed full of meat, cheese, salad and sauce.  Nick may be hoping to challenge the belief that a kebab is “man food”, but dainty this was not.

Undeterred, I chomped into it and – despite making a horrendous mess –  really rather enjoyed it.  Nick is absolutely right.  When a kebab is made with fresh, good quality ingredients, it’s actually a lovely thing.  The lamb was wonderfully tender, having been marinated for 24 hours in a mix of 17 spices.  And the bread…..oh wow the bread!  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nick and the team wanted to move away from the traditional pitta bread.  Instead they use souvlaki bread as it’s much softer.  I could seriously have eaten just a plate of bread.  The only minor gripe is that they weren’t all that generous with the halloumi.  There is no such thing as too much halloumi.  Nick’s chicken kebab came with crumbled feta, cucumber and a mint tahini youghurt.  Definitely not the sort of thing you’ll find down your local kebab house.  It tasted amazing; such a great combination of flavours and the freshness of the ingredients hits you straight in the tastebuds.

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Chifafa has the same levels of quality that you would find in a restaurant, but the speed of a fast food joint.  Currently focusing on the lunchtime crowd, the ethos is “fast casual”.  Nick feels that more and more people are looking for something a bit more exciting than a supermarket sandwich these days, and that’s where Chifafa steps in.  Longer term, he’s hoping to open another, larger, branch which will have a wider evening menu and offer more of a restaurant experience.  For someone who has never run a restaurant before, Nick knows which boxes to tick so it will be interesting to see how his plans unfold.

So in a way my old flame, John, was right.  You don’t mess with a man’s kebab.  In fact, you really shouldn’t mess with a kebab full stop.  By keeping things simple but focusing on quality, Chifafa are lifting the kebab out of the gutter.  My days of the post-club kebab stop are pretty much over.  But my days of the lunchtime kebab stop could be just beginning.

Chifafa, 45-47 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5RS
Many thanks to Nick Green for inviting me to join him for lunch.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Chifafa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Syrian Supper Club – Part 2

Syrian Supper Club – Part 2

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A little while ago I wrote about the Syrian Supper Club and the Hands Up Foundation; a group of young people who were motivated to start a pop-up event aimed at raising money for those affected by the crisis in Syria.  Well, the sound of all that Middle Eastern food made me really hungry so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and check out one of their supper clubs.

Supper clubs are very much on trend at the moment, but I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I had never been to one before.  There are so many to choose from, where do you even start?  So I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the E5 Bakehouse in London Fields, clutching my bottle of red wine.  The first thing I noticed was the incredible smell coming from the kitchen.  It was the scent of spice, warmth and the exotic.  The second things were the delicious welcome cocktail and the array of mezze dishes dotted around the room.  Waves of these plates were brought out to us and included shwander (beetroot dip), the softest homemade Turkoman flatbreads, little filo pies made with leek and halloumi, and a spiced pistachio soup.

After a short introductory talk about the Hands Up Foundation and the causes that they support, we headed through the kitchen to the candlelit dining area.  Our main course was mehshi halabi – Aleppo-style potatoes stuffed with beef in a tomato and tamarind sauce, with saffron and barberry rice.  This was what had been creating that intoxicating Middle-Eastern scent.  The beef was minced and formed into meatballs, smothered in a sauce so full of flavour you could tell it had been simmering away all day.  The addition of a yoghurt “raita-style” dressing was a lovely touch that cut through the richness of the tomato sauce.

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Just in case we weren’t already as stuffed as the potatoes, we were then presented with two desserts.  The first was halawiyyat – a meringue roulade with rhubarb, MarmalAid, rose petals and pistachios.  This was a delicious Middle-Eastern twist on a classic dish.  The roulade was supplemented with ma’amoul which are shortbread pastries filled, in this case, with rhubarb, walnuts, cinnamon and orange blossom.  I’m glad there were only enough for one each, as I might have found myself engaging in a feeding frenzy worthy of an entire flock of herring gulls.

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I felt a little apprehensive about attending a supper club alone, but the nature of the event meant that it was easy to chat to people.  And while it all felt very lovely and enjoyable – drinking red wine by candlelight, being served course after course of amazing food – it’s important to remember why we were all there in the first place.  The money raised from the supper clubs goes towards funding medical staff and equipment in Aleppo, as well as projects like a prosthetic limb clinic on the Turkish/Syrian border.  This particular supper club raised a grand total of £1,283.16, every penny of which will go to people who desperately need it.  It’s such an easy way of contributing towards an excellent cause that there’s really no excuse not to go along.

Syrian Supper Clubs are held monthly at E5 Bakehouse and cost £35 (BYOB)
http://www.syriansupperclub.com/

Syrian Supper Club

Syrian Supper Club

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The scent of orange blossom filled the house in the old town of Damascus.  The courtyard garden, complete with its orange tree, offered a relaxing haven from the hustle and bustle of the city that was home to Louisa Barnett and Rose Lukas.  As students of Arabic, they moved to Damascus to learn the language and quickly fell in love with Syria’s intoxicating atmosphere and welcoming people.  However, the spark of revolution had been lit across the Middle East, and this grew into a raging inferno that consumed Syria.  In 2011, as the Arab Spring left chaos in its wake, the girls were forced to leave.

Back in London, Rose and Louisa could not forget the kindness and generosity that had been shown to them by the Syrian people, and so they started coming up with fundraising ideas to help those affected by the civil war.  Taking inspiration from their love of cooking, Syrian food and the increasing popularity of pop-up events in London, they teamed up with two others (George and Johnnie) and decided to host a supper club at their home, inviting friends to join them around their kitchen table.  The Syrian Supper Club was born and quickly grew to become a regular event.

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The supper club team now have their own registered charity, The Hands Up Foundation (Hands Up) which is the channel for all the funds raised at Syrian Suppers to reach Syria.  They work alongside partner organisations such as Syria Relief, a Syrian-run charity whose aim is to provide care to the 7.6 million people who have been internally displaced by the conflict, and to help reduce migration from Syria.  By providing those still within Syria with the means to survive, the team hope to encourage people to remain in the country, preventing the loss of vital knowledge and expertise.  This not only fosters local support, it also means that Syrians can look ahead to rebuilding their country.  Both Rose and Louisa have friends who still live in Syria, so providing in-country assistance is something that is particularly important to them.

With this in mind, the money raised through the Syrian Supper Club goes towards tangible projects which have very clear and demonstrable results.  One example of this is medical care.  The supper club fundraising has paid for hospital equipment, such as X-ray machines, as well as salaries for a team of medical staff in Aleppo.  Once there were over 5000 doctors in Aleppo, now there are only 35.  Can you imagine having access to only 35 doctors in London?  It’s hard to comprehend.   However, the supper clubs can potentially raise enough money to fund four years of medical salaries.  Some of the money also goes towards a prosthetic limb clinic on the Turkish border.  The staff had been making limbs from incredibly limited resources but, thanks to the Syrian Supper Club, they can now create around 60 limbs each month, giving people back their movement and their dignity.

Almost four years on from the very first supper club, the team now cater to 40 people each month at the E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, serving three courses of Middle Eastern-inspired food, plus a cocktail, for £35 a head.  The events are so popular that even overseas visitors make a point of attending.  The supper club team not only want to remind people of all that’s great about Syria – the food, the culture, the people – they also want to encourage others to host their own supper clubs.  As Louisa said, “Most people hold dinner parties for their friends so it’s actually really easy to fundraise; take the initiative, get out there, spread the word”.  Syrian Supper Clubs are now held as far away as Singapore and the USA.

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And if you’re not able to attend a supper club in person or host your own, then there’s still a way to contribute.  That orange tree in Damascus , with its bounty of bitter oranges, inspired Louisa and Rose to make their own marmalade.  They continue to do this in the UK and have even won a bronze award at the Dalemain Marmalade Awards.  Jars can be purchased at the supper clubs and the team are investigating options with retailers too.  So it really doesn’t have to take much money and effort to support the actions of Rose, Louisa and their team, as well as experience a taste of Syrian culture beyond what we read in the news.

Find out more about the Syrian Supper Club here
Photos courtesy of Syrian Supper Club

Arabica Bar and Kitchen

Arabica Bar and Kitchen


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You’re supposed to feed a cold, or so the saying goes.  So when my birthday rolled around and I was feeling less than fabulous, it made perfect sense to go to one of the few restaurants where I could easily eat pretty much everything on the menu.  Arabica Bar and Kitchen regularly features in Time Out London’s Top 100 Restaurants list, and it’s been on my radar for some time.  With food “inspired by the sun rise nations of the Levant”, it offers more than your bog standard mezze restaurant.  The menu features dishes such as whipped feta with chillies, mint and pumpkin seeds, Lebanese style roasted cod, and sticky lamb belly and ribs with a pomegranate honey glaze.  It’s not difficult to see why I was so spoiled for choice.

The restaurant itself is a rather sexy little number and, like the menu, offers a happy departure from the majority of Middle Eastern restaurants.  Exposed brick walls replace heavy fabric drapes, you sit on actual chairs instead of cushions, and there’s not a belly dancer in sight.  It’s more like a trendy urban cafe and has the same busy vibe.  We began with an aperitif.  In my case, this was the spiced Lebanese wine, which was basically mulled wine served in a dainty little cup.  Operation Defeat Cold was on.

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Our waiter advised us to choose a selection of small plates to start with, and then one main course each which we could share between us.  We kicked off with some moutabel, which is smoked aubergine with tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon, falafel (natch), halloumi (can’t resist), and spiced venison bourekas.  This latter dish was a puff pastry parcel filled with pulled venison meat and sultanas, topped with flaked almonds and icing sugar.  It was like a richer version of the Moroccan pastilla, and one of the few more unusual dishes I got to try during this meal thanks to some fairly unadventurous dining companions.  That said, the mezze staples like falafel and halloumi were pretty fantastic and definitely a cut above the usual stuff that gets trotted out at most Middle Eastern restaurants.

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Again, our main course options were fairly limited thanks to my two companions both ordering the same dish.  Their choice was the chicken and pistachio shish with cardamom, honey and green chilli.  I’m always a bit wary of chicken kebab dishes, having eaten more than my fair share of dry, chewy scraps of meat.  Happily, these particular kebabs were moist and flavoursome, rich in their own juices.  My choice of main was the imam bayaldi.  This was half a roasted aubergine filled with a spiced lamb ragu and topped with tomatoes and pine nuts.  It was pleasant enough but I feel that it could have been a lot richer, with more depth of flavour.

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There was a smidgen of room left for dessert and right from the start I’d had my eye on the knafeh.  This is a Lebanese cheese pastry served warm, with orange blossom honey and crushed pistachios.  I had never tried one of these before so I was looking forward to scoffing it down.  The pastry was fine and flaky, like that on a baklava, and soaked with sweet honey.  It was filled with soft, elastic cheese – more like cooked mozzarella than baked cheesecake – but this was actually a lot nicer than it sounds.  Using a semi-hard cheese means that the whole dish is prevented from becoming overly rich and sickly.  Plus I’m sure all that honey did wonders for my sore throat…

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Getting to Arabica involves running the gauntlet through Borough Market, and I would advise you to keep your head down and not let yourself get distracted by all the loveliness on offer there.  You need to go to Arabica hungry.  Cold or no cold, there’s no excuse for not stuffing your face.

Arabica Bar and Kitchen, 3 Rochester Walk, SE1 9AF
£45 per person for three courses including drinks

Arabica Bar & Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato