Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Rebecca Seal and olive reader Beth Rose compare notes on Sesame.
Rebecca Seal is a food and drink journalist and presenter on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. Her latest book, The Islands of Greece, is out now. (£25, Hardie Grant)
Beth Rose lives in East London and eats out at least twice a week. Her favourite dish is the miso black cod anticucho at Sushisamba, and her guilty pleasure is eating cheddar cheese dipped in raspberry jam.
Ottolenghi director Noam Bar is the man behind Sesame, a new Middle Eastern and Mediterranean street-food café in Covent Garden. Expect warm and vibrant dishes, including lamb and beef kebab with sweet spices, or spicy paprika chicken, served either in soft pitta or on a skewer (starting from £2.75). There’s also harissa vegetable couscous and plenty of salads, early morning paninis (try egg, bacon and sweet salsa, £3.15), fresh dips and cakes, including a rose brownie, £1.50. sesamefood.co.uk
Although it was a busy lunchtime, Sesame’s service was startlingly friendly – our server even gave us free coffee. I assumed it was because we’d ordered so much, but she said it was just because she wanted to… she seemed genuine, so I don’t think I was recognised*. This Middle Eastern-style café runs on the same lines as Pret: grab cold dishes, order hot food at the counter, and sit at a little wooden table; but there the similarities end.
Our server was friendly and knowledgeable. She threw in some pistachio nougat bars and sesame sweets with our meal. Our hot food arrived in minutes. The basement eating area has pretty, coloured-tiled walls, although it did seem like they didn’t want people hanging around – the wooden stools and movable tables said ‘eat your pitta and go’ rather than ‘come and relax’.
Noam Bar is one of the brains behind Yotam Ottolenghi’s food empire, and this opening is just as you might expect from someone with his pedigree. Sesame concentrates on quick, inexpensive but delicious breakfasts, lunches and snacks. The street-food-inspired menu is short and simple, but smart: proteins in pittas or on skewers, boxed salads, and just a few house-made puddings and drinks. The Ottolenghi team is well known for testing the hell out of its dishes, so you can bet the kitchen here has done the same, and it shows.
Fluffy pittas come stuffed with chicken and speckled with za’atar, with diced vegetables and lemon, or with generous chunks of spiced minced lamb kebab (£6.65 and £6.80); salads, avoid being blandly fridge-cold, combine roasted cauliflower, tahini and pomegranate, or ribbons of courgette with bulgar wheat and preserved lemon (£3.45). Sweet things have enough Middle Eastern touches to keep them intriguing, with rose in the brownies (£1.50) and halva in the cookies (£1.30), plus you can sample great nougat – sticky, sugary and studded with pistachio and almonds (£4).
za’atar chicken in a beautifully fluffy pitta (£6.65), which had a smoky flavour from the charcoal. This came with a zingy chopped salad and a generous dollop of zhoug – a punchy salsa with chillies, earthy spices and coriander. The pittas were good value considering the location: the spiced lamb pitta (£6.80) was nicely garlicky, with deep flavours of cumin, but the paprika and cardamom chicken tasted so strongly of cardamom that the paprika was unrecognizable (£6.65). The only hot vegetarian option was a roasted aubergine and egg pitta (£5.95).
We ordered large sides (£6.46 each) – the sweet roasted butternut squash was moreish, with a light, creamy, Greek yogurt dressing and fresh, juicy pomegranate seeds. The courgette with bulgar and feta was the perfect mix of sweet, salty and sour. However, the mixed green beans with sesame and chilli were oily and bland and I couldn’t make out any chilli. My fresh orange juice was delicious and pulpy, but had many pips lurking at the bottom.
The bottom line
With pretty patterned tiles, white walls and artfully arranged vintage pictures of Istanbul, Mediterranean street markets and beaches, Sesame has been thoughtfully designed and is clearly ready for a roll-out – you’ll be delighted if a branch opened up round the corner from your office. Bill was £36.80 for two (there’s no service charge at Sesame).
FOOD 8/10; ATMOSPHERE 7/10; SERVICE 9/10; TOTAL 24/30
The atmosphere was bright and cheery and the menu refined, with just enough choice. Sesame closes at 11pm on weeknights. I’d go there for a quick lunch or an easy dinner after work. I would visit if I was in the area again, especially for the fresh, fluffy pittas. Bill was £30.81 for two.
FOOD 8/10; ATMOSPHERE 6/10; SERVICE 10/10; TOTAL 24/30
Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating:
The chicken at Sesame is British, but not higher welfare, although the eggs are free range. Much of its fruit and vegetables is imported. Its coffee is Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance approved. The snack section of the menu focusses on artisan producers. However, most of Sesame’s business is take-away, and we couldn’t confirm if the packaging was recycled and/or recyclable. On a positive note, connections have already been made with local community projects
as well as some international charities.
Written August 2015
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