If you’re heading to Neal’s Yard latest addition, Barbary (sister restaurant to the acclaimed Palomar, you need to leave all London attitude at the sliding door of Covent Garden’s tube station. Don’t get angry about the crowds (despite the warning on the tube map). Don’t get mad when you realise, 30 steps out of 193 in, that skipping the queue for the lift to climb the equivalent of 15 storeys was potentially the worst idea of your life. Don’t get miffed about then having to queue (while in recovery) to even get inside Barbary – this is yet another no-reservation restaurant. Put your happy face on and swiftly order a vermouth (there are two to choose from).
We arrived at 7pm and had no more than a 30-minute wait, and tucked ourselves in the window area. There’s barely an inch to pinch, so expect some jostling for room with punters and staff alike as they whizz around the horseshoe-breakfast bar surrounding the tiny open galley kitchen. We were popped in the middle of the shoe as soon as a gap became available – this isn’t a place you linger. You order, you eat, you leave. The seats are pretty uncomfortable, you will get repeatedly bumped into but… the food. The food is why you’re competing for your seat here.
Specialising in grilling and baking from the Barbary Coast to Jerusalem, the menu is divided into baking and grinding, land, sea and earth – and you’ve got a prime view over everything as it is cooked. Chef’s table at a snip.
Order something from at least every section, and a special if you can manage it. The team will talk you through everything with genuine enthusiasm. We start with a Jerusalem bagel, a still-warm soft and chewy giant zero-shape, crusted with sesame seeds, and served with a pinch of aromatic za’atar that I later squirrel away in my handbag, it’s that good. We also (rather smugly) get the plate of herb-packed Yemenite hot sauce, zhug, with fiery harissa, a mild red chilli, blistered and sweet from the grill, and pickled aubergine – all good fodder for that bagel. The waitress nodded in approval at our choice.
Roasted aubergine ‘sharabik’ was a smoking melting mouthful – split in half it was almost spreadable, with its creamy tahini blanket beneath, while a sweet/sour molasses, toasted almonds and fresh raspberries brought it all together.
Having spied it being sliced right in front of us, the pata negra neck was like no pork we’d ever tasted – rich, buttery, more like a heavyweight Galician beef in its umami punch. Crystals of sea salt broke up the black char from the grill, while whole, super sweet soft confit garlic cloves were crying out to be mashed in yet more tangy date molasses on the side.
A 2014 riesling from Alsace was a strong recommendation to go with our mix of plates but worked particularly well with octopus mashawsha (a style of hummus from Tel Aviv, with whole chickpeas).
Knafeh for pud, was crisp, savoury and sweet, with its pistachio crumble hiding angel noodles and melty cheese beneath, but it was the halva ice cream that stole our heart. Elegant, grown-up and yet very, very naughty in the best kind of way.
Was the wait/seating/space situation annoying? Yes. Was the food all worth it? Hell yes. Beautiful ingredients, cooked simply with skill and speed, served with enthusiasm – the recipe for a pretty perfect meal, I’d say.
Barbary, 16 Neal’s Yard, London WC2H 9DP
Written by Laura Rowe
Photographs by Carol Sachs
First published August 2016
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