Posts Tagged ‘Fitzrovia’

interior of Hiba Lebanese restaurant

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.

best grilled halloumi, ever (£5.50) at Hiba

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.

salty grilled halloumi topped with even saltier olives at Yalla Yalla

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.

fattoush (£4.95), kibbeh (£5.50) and labneh (£4.75) at Hiba

chicken wings at Hiba were saved by the garlic labneh (£5.50)

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.

slight advantage to Yalla Yalla's fattoush, which was beautiful and well dressed

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.

Yalla Yalla's sfihe, pastry filled with minced lamb, onion, tomato and pomegranate molasses

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.

Yalla Yalla's baklava (not pretty and about £5)

Hiba's baklava - lovely to look at and lovely to eat. And free!

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

Hiba on Urbanspoon
Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

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Iberica Food & Culture, 195 Great Portland Street

For my first meal back in London, I wanted something warm and lively.  Something the opposite of Boston’s cold Puritannical image.   Tapas sounded ideal, but the prospect of queuing in the cold to eat at my beloved Barrafina was highly unappealing. So Jon and I decided to try Iberica Food & Culture, which opened in October 2008 but seems to have gotten a lot of generally-positive blogger coverage over the last few months (see these posts by Londoneater, Tehbus, and Londonelicious for example).

The food fell into two buckets, really.  “Pretty Good” and “Kind of Disappointing.”  There was nothing spectacular and nothing horrible.

Here’s the “Pretty Good”:

sweet pigs trotters with Mahon cheese and Iberico ham (£7.00)

Sweet pigs trotters with a sharp Mahon cheese and Iberico ham, all served on a crisp pastry.  I enjoyed all the textures and flavors (salty, citrusy, meaty) but what held the dish back was the somewhat gluey texture of the trotter.  I’d hoped for something more melt-in-your-mouth.  But overall a tasty dish.

black rice with cuttlefish, prawns and alioli (£9.85)

Black rice with cuttlefish prawns is one of my fave dishes to order in Spanish restaurants.  First, there’s the color – squid ink makes everything seem special.  Then there’s the intense seafood flavor soaked into the risotto rice.  Iberica’s version had a texture that struck the right balance between al dente and creamy, but what would’ve made a great dish would have been more cuttlefish and fewer prawns.  An entirely arbitrary preference, I know.

Fried artichokes with pear alioli (£6.85)

Fried artichokes with pear alioli (£6.85)

Fried artichokes with pear alioli have been much written about at Iberico.  And yes, they’re good (unlike my blurry photo).  Crisp with a hint of sourness that artichoke lovers crave.  For me, the appeal was mostly in the accompanying slightly-sweet, garlicky alioli.

And rounding out the “Pretty Good” list was our trio of cheeses (Mahon, Manchego, Ibores) for £4.95.  It was a generous portion and well priced for the quality.  Maybe we could have a little more quince paste next time, though.

The “Kind of Disappointing” dishes:

Marinated tuna loin with mustard, apples and chives (£9.00)

Marinated tuna loin with mustard, apples and chives tasted mealy.  Why serve raw fish if it’s not going to be fresh and refreshing?

Iberica's Version: Broken egg with Iberico ham and fried potatoes (£7.50)

And “broken egg with Iberico ham and fried potatoes” sounded so promising!  Breakfast at dinner.  Who doesn’t love that?  Admittedly, part of our high expectations stemmed from our memory of the wondrous “carpaccio huevos fritos” that we’d had at Barcelona’s Bar Mut last May. Setting aside the camera/lighting issues I had at Iberica, just compare the above photograph of Iberica’s dish with the photo of Bar Mut’s version below. Iberica offered us limp fries with a smattering of yolk. Bar Mut, in contrast, gave us crispy shoestring potatoes in an ocean of egg yolk. You understand my disappointment in Iberica’s version, then.

Bar Mut's version: carpaccio huevos fritos

Iberica’s list of Spanish wines was long, but I was again a little disappointed that there were only two choices from the Ribera del Duero.  Too much Rioja on the list.

The service was efficient, but not especially friendly or helpful (e.g., we had to guess what cheeses we were eating and it was difficult flagging down a server for sherry to go with our cheese).

Without hesitation, though, I’d recommend Iberica for the atmosphere, which was warm and lively.   It was exactly what I was looking for on a Saturday night.  I had a lot of fun, and the food was good enough.  The kitchen’s no threat to Barrafina’s, but then again, it’s nice to be able to make a reservation in advance and sit at a table.

Dinner for two with wine and sherry came to £115.
Iberica on Urbanspoon

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baked eggs with chorizo, mushrooms, spinach (£9.50)

Lantana Cafe is much loved by the pros and punters alike.   I, however, am not a fan.

Two Saturdays ago, wanting a centrally-located brunch-y place to meet a friend, Jon and I showed up at Lantana at around 1:30 pm.  The place was packed, which I’d expected, so we patiently queued for about 30 minutes.

Finally inside, the cafe was noisy and bustling, and we sat elbow-to-elbow with neighboring tables, which was convivial (though somewhat awkward for the type of catch-up conversation we wanted to have with our friend).

We placed our orders relatively quickly after sitting down, and then we waited.  And waited.  For over an hour.  In fact, we waited an hour and 15 minutes for the three plates we’d ordered.  That was silly.  I understand the place is crowded and busy.  But there were only three of us.  And the menu is limited to egg dishes and sandwiches.

On the plus side, the food – when it finally arrived – was good.  My baked eggs were cooked in a smoky, slightly-spicy chipotle-tasting sauce.  I miss chipotle.  I used to buy those peppers canned and add them to anything I could get my hands on.  I’ll have to remember to bring some back with me when I’m in the U.S. for the December holidays.

corn fritters with bacon, avocado and roast tomato salsa (£9)

My friend’s corn fritters with a side of bacon was also tasty, but then again, by the time our food arrived, we were ravenous.  So even a cardboard box would have tasted good.  The bacon and sausage he ordered, though – well, he had to fight us off for those.  I’m sure the meat products at Lantana Cafe would be delicious even if one had arrived with a full stomach.

omelet with ham spinach and cheddar (£8)

And Jon’s ham, spinach and cheddar omelet was a little dry, but I guess that’s why you get a tomato chutney on the side.

Our food hit our table at 3:15.  We devoured everything by 3:30 and were out the door by 3:45.  With teas and coffees, we paid £14 each.

Service was friendly but completely not helpful with speeding up our order (one server explained that it was my baked egg dish that was taking a long time.  Really?  An hour and 15 minutes?).

Lantana Cafe could learn a thing or two from any number of unheralded NJ diners – those places know how to push out a hot, delicious brunch.  In any event, our meal at LC wasn’t worth the wait.

Lantana Cafe, 13 Charlotte Place, W1T 1SN; 020 7637 3347; closest tube station: Goodge Street.

Lantana on Urbanspoon

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pretty rice crockery at Busaba Eathai

pretty rice crockery at Busaba Eathai

The day after eating at Sake No Hana, Jon and I went to see the Babylon exhibit at the British Museum (which, by the way, wasn’t thought-provoking or even entertaining. It’s like someone googled “Babylon” and threw the results together in a cramped exhibition space).

Needing lunch, we continued our Alan Yau kick and walked over to Busaba Eathai, his Thai canteen.

And you know, it’s all about the details. Busaba Eathai could’ve been an anonymous, assembly-line Wagamama-type deal, but instead, the small things like pretty ceramic crockery for plain rice made me smile.

interior of Busaba Eathai

Busaba Eathai interior

Sure, it’s communal seating, but the dark wood and the sleek lanterns made my lunch seem more festive than a quick meal in a cafeteria.

chicken green curry at Busaba Eathai

green chicken curry at Busaba Eathai

And the green chicken curry was packed with tender chicken (not over-cooked like it is at, say, Wagamama), Thai aubergine and crunchy bamboo. The curry sauce was even spicy? Excellent. I could’ve drunk down the curry sauce alone. Actually, I think I did.

ginger-honey tea at Busaba Eathai

ginger-honey tea at Busaba Eathai

Feeling a bit under the weather, I ordered some ginger tea. When I was a kid, I used to cry when my mom made me drink the stuff. Now I crave it when I’m sick. (Moms everywhere are smiling smugly as I write this paragraph).

Anyway, Busaba’s ginger tea was sweet with honey. The buttery, crumbly shortbread-pistachio cookies kept things indulgent, rather than medicinal.

Overall, I had a pleasant, cheap and tasty meal (the vast majority of main courses cost less than £8).

Busaba Eathai is now my go-to place for lunch when I visit the British Museum.

Busaba Eathai, 22 Store Street, WC1E 7DF, 0207 299 7900; closest tube station: Goodge Street. [Two other locations; one in Soho on Wardour Street, and the other near Selfdriges on Bird Street.]
Busaba Eathai on Urbanspoon

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