The Barbary opened a few weeks ago to a fanfare of excited reviews. Even before it opened there was excitement, for The Barbary is ‘little sister’ to the wonderful The Palomar, and so expectations were high. Pretty much without exception, the reviews have been great so I was keen to go there soon. However, it was Annie who suggested we went today when we fixed a date to get together.
Tucked into a little alleyway that leads into Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, with a tiny brass plaque by the door, it would be easy to miss it if you didn’t know it was there. In the main, Neal’s Yard is full of therapy rooms and healthy eating places. There’s no booking at The Barbary so it’s a turn up and queue if a queue has formed (and apparently sometimes that’s a very long queue indeed). On this rainy Tuesday lunchtime in quiet August, there wasn’t really a queue at all. But Annie and I had agreed to meet there just before noon when they open – just in case! As it turned out, we were first in when the doors opened.
There are just 24 seats – stools – at a horseshoe shaped bar that wraps round an open kitchen. At The Palomar, people sometimes queue for 2 hours for the bar experience, which is a bit of true kitchen theatre, rather than sit at tables at the back – here at The Barbary, that’s all there was. But bars looking over open kitchens is great.
The menu is quite short and divided into three parts: Baking & Grinding (basically breads and dips); Al-la-Esh, which are grilled dishes (subdivided into Land and Sea); and finally Earth. There were also some specials of the day. The cooking takes its inspiration from the Barbary Coast that runs along the north coast of Africa. There’s less emphasis here on the food from Jerusalem that is the heart of The Palomar’s food, but includes food from Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.
We were immediately offered water – still or sparkling – and the menus put before us. The girl serving us was happy to explain everything – and some of it needed explaining; what ‘names’ of dishes meant. She suggested that two people needed to order 6-8 small sharing dishes; in the end we chose 6 – and that was plenty. She also knew the wines well and helped us choose glasses, offering a taste before deciding. This kind of attention makes a big difference, though I did feel I needed a bit more time – once the menu was deciphered – to choose, although the girl stood ready with pad and pen. So we ordered two glasses of wine and some bread and dips and asked for more time to make our other choices. As it turned out, it was good to have this break between our ‘starters’ and the rest of the food as plates came quite quickly. I’d definitely do that again!
The Jerusalem Bagel was large and freshly cooked; warm and wonderfully soft in the middle, nicely crusty outside. It came with a little pack of za’atar to dip into (which in all honesty I thought a bit unnecessary). It was really delicious; I almost wished we’d ordered two – but that would have been really greedy! We’d ordered Zhug, Harissa, Burnt & Pickled Chilli to go with it – which also came with a baby pickled aubergine in the middle.
Zhug is a Yemeni sauce, bright with herbs and a strong kick from the spices. It was all wonderful and a great way to start the meal with the bagel.
Sardines Kusbara were a special of the day: butterflied sardines cooked on the grill with a tomato sauce, a kind of chimchurri sauce, and laid on a smearing of labneh. This was good too, although I felt the sardines (and I love simply grilled fresh sardines) were slightly lost beneath the dressings.
We were told that Pata Negra Neck was a signature dish: Iberico pork with ras el hanout, confit garlic cloves and a date syrup. The pork was gorgeously tender and tasty, and wonderful dipped into the date syrup.
Cauliflower Jaffa Style shows what an exciting vegetable cauliflower can be. Served with tomato, lemon and coriander on a tahini sauce base, it was very good indeed.
Our final choice was Fattush – mainly because I can never resist a fattush salad! It was a little disappointing: nicely fresh but lacking a punch, and given that it’s a (Levantine) bread salad, bread a little hard to find and when found it turned out to be very tiny little dried bread biscuits. Of course you don’t want too much bread, but I would have liked a little more, and I’ve had better fattush salads elsewhere.
We were too full for dessert and they were mainly very sweet things – honey drizzled cakes of the Turkish kind or halva ice cream. The only coffee on offer was Turkish coffee – no espresso – so we opted for mint tea.
It didn’t look that interesting when it turned up – not a mint leaf in sight – but smelled of fresh mint and tasted fine, though a pot would have been a nicer way of serving it.
So – did The Barbary live up to all those high expectations? Sadly, No. It is very good and a lovely place to sit and enjoy some of the kind of food I love best, but neither Annie nor I thought it touched the excellence and specialness of its bigger sister, The Palomar. The Palomar is one of my favourite restaurants (click here for review). I’ve not been that often but each time there’s been that great Wow! factor – it’s like an exciting adventure and the food is sublime, extraordinary, wonderful. I frequently tell people they just have to go to The Palomar – there’s nothing like it. It’s difficult when you go somewhere with such high expectations but I was expecting another version of The Palomar at The Barbary, and it really wasn’t quite that. But it’s still a young thing, barely a few weeks old, so maybe it needs time to mature and find itself a bit more.