For reasons not worth going into here, last week, I ate Lebanese food three nights in a row. Yalla Yalla on Thursday. Hiba on both Friday and Saturday. Both places enjoy positive TimeOut reviews, with Yalla Yalla enjoying some extra buzz after the recent opening of its Oxford Circus branch.
Still, I left Yalla Yalla thinking it was a nice option to have when shopping on Oxford Street, but otherwise, I wasn’t super impressed. The service was a bit pushy (my friend and I ordered seven mezze to share and the server still asked us “are you *just* having mezze? no main courses?”), and the food, while attractively presented, ranged from not-good (e.g., squeaky, over-salty halloumi) to good-but-not-memorable (e.g., fattoush).
24 hours later, I’m at Hiba Restaurant, an oasis on an otherwise forlorn stretch of Borough High Street. Where Yalla Yalla was spare and Wagamama-cafeteria-dining like, Hiba aims for chic, nighttime atmosphere. It’s warm and inviting, and I was glad we’d made a booking, because the restaurant was packed on both Friday and Saturday nights. Minor hiccup when a server told us we’d have to wait a few minutes for a table “because you were 14 minutes late for your booking.” I swear we were less than 5 minutes late for our booking, but in any case, I could have done with less accusation, generally.
Star attraction at Hiba: Halloumi. There were many tasty, memorable dishes at Hiba (e.g., crispy, fragrant falafel, refreshing grilled aubergine with tomato, onion, parsley and mint (bazenjan al-rahib)), but for me, the halloumi stole the show. I ordered it both nights I was at Hiba, and it was superb on both nights. Yielding, almost-juicy tofu-like texture. No squeakiness. Mild, creamy almost-mozzarella flavor with a hit of smokiness from the grill.
Contrast with Yalla Yalla’s version, which looked pretty. But the halloumi was a bit squeaky and grilled to dryness. Worse still, the halloumi’s saltiness was further compounded by the salty olive topping. My friend and I, lovers of halloumi, couldn’t finish it.
Order anything at Hiba that comes with labneh, a thick cheesy-tangy yoghurt. The chicken wings at Hiba, for example, were a bit scrawny, but they were saved by the garlicky labneh served on the side. Hiba’s kibbeh, which was better/more moist than Yalla Yalla’s version, still benefited from the rich labneh we’d ordered. Labneh can transform any dish for the better, it seems.
I will say that Yalla Yalla does a better job of plating than Hiba does. Everything at Yalla Yalla was visually prettier, especially the fattoush. Salads usually taste better when they look pretty, I think.
But it takes more than good looks to win me over. Take, for example, Yalla Yalla’s sfihe, whose menu description sounded perfect. But in reality, the “pastry” was really just a stodgy, thick bread filled with very little lamb/onion mince. The pomegranate molasses had such a strong flavor that more savoury mince filling was desperately needed to balance things out.
Ending was no competition. Pale, stolid-looking baklava at Yalla Yalla for about £5 versus delicious, flaky baklava for free at Hiba. Advantage Hiba, obviously.
Prices at both restaurants were similar, with most mezze costing less than £5 and most mains at £12. None of my three meals cost more than £25, including service and wine. If you’re looking for a relaxing, tasty night out with friends or a date, Hiba fits the bill perfectly.
Hiba, 134-138 Borough High Street, SE1 1LB; 0207 357 9633; closest Tube station: 3 minutes’ walk from Borough
Yalla Yalla, 12 Winsley Street, W1W 8HQ; 0207 637 4748; closest Tube station: 5 minutes’ walk from Oxford Circus