Bubala, 65 Commercial Street, London E1 6BD, (020 7392 2111). Small plates £5-£7.50, larger plates £9-£11, desserts £4-£5.50, wines from £25
Shortly after sitting down at Bubala, I felt a chill breeze. I looked across to the front door, which was flapping open. As a customer left, they pulled it shut behind them. It sprung open again, just enough to let in a gust of frigid air. I studied the narrow, L-shaped dining room with its textured walls in light shades of oatmeal, and its bar tiled in jade green, and its hard-wooden banquettes, with their sky-blue panels. The colours may have changed, but everything else was familiar, including my plummeting core temperature. I got out my phone and did something I never, ever, ever do, because it’s hideously vain and I am absolutely not that person. Not at all. Not me. I Googled myself.
I thought I recognised that cold wind. Exactly two years ago I sat in this very same dining room, on Commercial Street in east London. Back then it was an ill-conceived modish Indian restaurant, limbering up to die. In that review I also whined about the door. “Efficiently, on a cold November lunchtime,” I wrote, “the open front door channels chilly air right to the back corner. We ask for it to be closed more than once.” Here then, is the one message I would love the management of Bubala to take away from this review. Rehang the bloody door. Take it off its hinges and loosen them. It will never close properly unless you do so and your diners will be cold throughout the winter and do you really want me to sit here and freeze my tuchus off?
The small lurch into Yiddish is appropriate. Bubala is roughly the Yiddish for sweetheart or darling. It’s what a mother calls her child; what a husband calls his wife. Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe. And yet the menu at Bubala concerns itself with food from the far eastern Mediterranean and Spain, which I associate with the Sephardim. Certainly, do not come here looking for a salt-beef bagel. Indeed, do not come here looking for any meat at all. It is entirely, robustly, exuberantly vegetarian. The menu may reference ingredients you have never heard of. Still, in an age dominated by the great Yotam Ottolenghi we are all skilled at nodding sagely at such things, to indicate we get the drift, if not the details. Labneh Schabneh as no one has ever said, until now.
We order their pickles, to crunch away at while we blink at the menu. There are taut quarters of green tomato, and slabs of carrot in a sweet-sour brine with the lofty aromatics of cumin. Their take on hummus, whipped up with brown butter and tahini, arrives with an indentation filled with olive oil, chickpeas, toasted pine nuts and roughly chopped parsley. It is smooth and close to a light peanut butter. Next to this is a pumpkin tirshy, a Moroccan dip the colour of a dying sun, with the acidity of preserved lemons, the fire of harissa and the light bitterness of kalamata olives. We worry that we do not have enough of their pillowy, singed flatbread to do these dishes justice. Somehow, we manage.
There is still-warm falafel with a puddle of whipped tahini and crimson strands of pickled onion. There are discs of aubergine, long-roasted until the skins are almost crisp and chewy, then dressed with heaps of a sharp coriander relish called zhoug. Oh yes, tonight I am learning many new words. A long plank of mellow halloumi comes crisply fried and dressed with black-seed honey. People will tell you breathlessly that this particular honey, infused with the likes of nigella and black cumin seed, will protect you from cancer. Yeah, whatever. You only need to know it’s lovely on halloumi; if you have a cold, try a Lemsip.
A chunk of cabbage comes seared and blackened and pelted with pomegranate, hazelnuts and tahini by a kitchen that has never heard the phrase “enough already”. It doesn’t need to because it’s a delightfully messy dish. A lump of green romanesco cauliflower is less than fiercely cooked. We have to ask whether they have anything approaching a steak knife. They find something. Even then, we send part of it flying across the table in a splat of smoked tomato sauce punched up with ras el hanout. When we get it all back on to the plate it’s another strong and satisfying mess.
I have to take issue with one menu description: confit potato latkes. I know latkes, and latkes these ain’t. A latke demands grated potato, egg, perhaps a little chopped onion. They are ill-shaped dollops of crisp-fried potato. What they serve at Bubala are geometric blocks of finely sliced confited potato, pressed and then deep fried, which originated at the Quality Chop House on the Farringdon Road. They’re great. Of course they are. They’re deep-fried pieces of already confited potato. How could they not be great? The sprinkling of Aleppo chilli adds an encouraging kick. But latkes, they are not.
The one real letdown is dessert. It’s ices. It’s very nice ices, but just ices all the same. There’s an enthusiastically refreshing coconut and cardamom sorbet on plums roasted with the purple citrus spring of sumac, all of it scattered with grated coconut. There’s a brilliant date and tangerine ice-cream dribbled with more tahini. (Can you imagine how much tahini they get through in a week here? I hope they’re investing in sesame futures.) But at this point, what you want is friable pastries; something made with crushed nuts and syrup and orange blossom, and maybe sweetened cream cheese. What you want is the dessert menu from Honey & Co over on Warren Street. There are squidgy chocolate truffles, four of them, but they are no substitute for syrup-soaked loveliness.
Because there is no meat or fish on the menu, prices stay down. Most dishes are between £5 and £7.50 with nothing above £11. You can inflate the bill with a cocktail or two or by shopping up the wine list, but, even then, there’s a significant choice by the glass. Bubala would be close to perfect if they got themselves a pastry chef. And if they rehung that damn door, which is still flapping open and closed as we leave, with the staff gamely putting their shoulder into it as if to show willing. It didn’t really matter when it was the previous restaurant, but with this one it does. Bubala deserves to last.
If you want to eat in a restaurant where the clientele may well call each other bubala for real, try Tish in Belsize Park, a kosher brasserie. The menu is broadly European but they know their clientele, so go there for the chicken soup, the salt beef sandwich, the (real) latkes and the lokshen pudding, which may be like your mother makes, depending on your mother (tish.london).
New restaurants rarely launch in the first week of January. Traditionally it’s a time when businesses stay closed, on account of the post-festive lull. Let’s hear it then for newcomer 28 Market Place, which opens for business in Somerton, Somerset on 3 January. The new venture from Ben and Vanessa Crofton, late of the Soho House group, will have Dan Fletcher, formerly of The Square in London’s Mayfair, running the kitchen (28marketplace.co.uk).
Amid the avalanche of books released around now, promising to enable you to eat anything you like and never put on weight ever again, one new title catches my eye, for ambition alone. It’s called 100 Recipes to Live to 100 by Dan Buettner and is published on 9 January. Check in with me in September 2066 to see whether it worked.
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/dec/29/bubala-london-exuberantly-vegetarian-restaurant-review