Wednesday, 6 August 2014
Arabica, Borough Market
Running a restaurant, I imagine (and I'm not exactly talking from a position of much authority) involves mastering a difficult and delicate equilibrium in a number of competing factors. Cost/quality of ingredients, number/experience of staff, markups, number of dishes offered, reservations policy, décor, even opening hours - get anything too far wrong and you'll lose money no matter how noble your intentions and no matter how good the food is coming out of your kitchens. Even thinking about how difficult it must be getting the balance right makes me shudder. I could never be a restuarateur; I don't have the patience, the energy or the way with people. No, I'd much rather sit at home bitching about someone else getting it slightly wrong, given the option.
But though I try and sympathise as much as I can with those with the difficult job of running a successful restaurant, it's still deeply frustrating seeing somewhere like Arabica, which hits the nail on the head in so many different ways, tripping up so dramatically in one regard it threatens to derail the whole operation. It's frustrating because I wanted to enjoy Arabica, and there are some astonishingly talented people working there, and they so nearly had it right.
Let's start with the good news, and there is plenty of that. This attractive, airy space in Borough Market has been designed by someone who knows exactly what they're doing. There's a good mix between casual spots at the bar, taller tables next to cantilevered patio doors, well-spaced tables in the main room and a couple of cozy booths; something for everyone in other words. Staff are pleasant, attentive and know the menu well. And the vast menu reads like a dream - there are Levantine favourites like fattoush, kibbeh and falafel, but also more unusual options like pickled sardines (in fact there's a whole raw/cured section), frog legs and beef & bone marrow kofta.
So far, so good. I would, I think, have happily eaten everything on offer but advised to choose 3 dishes each (this seems to be the Thing these days) we ended up with six spread across as many different categories as we could, and some house pickles.
First up was "moutabel". Smoked aubergine and tahini spiked with garlic, it was a thoroughly enjoyable play of gentle smoked vegetables and exotic spicing, and the flatbread it came with was straight out of the clay oven and steaming hot. So, you can't fault their technique. What you can fault is that this miniscule portion, served on one of those 3.5" plates you'd normally use for spent olive stones and containing hardly more than a tablespoon of mixture, was £6. Even the flatbread was barely more than saucer-sized.
House pickles saved on the same sized plate were £3.50 for about ten bits, but were - admittedly - some of the best pickles I've had ever. It's a bit difficult to describe exactly why they were so successful, the best pickles are always something of an enigma, but they had none of that cloying sweetness that you sometimes get from house-made efforts and an arresting zing from - I'm guessing - incredibly good vinegar. They also all had a good firm crunch. Just lovely, and at even £1 less a portion they would have been unimpeachable.
Sardines took the "great food, tiny portions" theme and ran with it even further. For £6.50, again on that 3.5" plate, was three thin half-fillets of sardines, salad and dressing. Again, just wonderful to eat but barely more than a mouthful. And how much really are sardines? It's not like they were dunked in caviar.
Hake "sayadieh" (pan fried with rice and tahini) was really the only dish where the cooking itself could be faulted. The fish was mushy in parts and rather underseasoned, and though the mix of textures was interesting, overall this didn't set the pulse racing. A tenner for a 1.5" square of fillet, too...
While the quail was marked on the menu at £12.50, when the bill arrived it was down as £10 which is at least vaguely approaching value. It was very nice; a rich, crisp skin, moist flesh and I loved the little crunchy bits of fried garlic. But I can't help remembering a similarly lovely chargrilled whole quail at my local Vietnamese Mien Tay for £6.20. I mean it probably wasn't from some smallholding in Norfolk like this one was, but I'm not sure anyone could tell the difference either way.
Chicken wings (four for £7) again moved notionally closer to value without ever quite managing it. The marinade was citrussy and summery, the chicken cooked perfectly with a good crisp skin, and the spiced yoghurt a lovely counterpoint. Perhaps you're paying for the Label Anglais chicken they allegedly use, but again, under all this marinade I doubt a cheaper main ingredient would have really tasted much different.
Finally, "shankleash", a cheese salad with tomato, onion and olive oil, a couple of spoonfuls of which cost £6. I'm sure better people than me could tell the difference between this and any other feta, cherry tomato and onion salad but, well, I couldn't.
In the end, I didn't hate Arabica. It's impossible to hate Lebanese food even when it's only fairly competently made, and in the hands of the clearly very talented kitchen here it very often shines. But I wonder why, when the powers that be decided to spread a tablespoon of smoked aubergine on doll's house tableware and charge £6 for it, nobody felt compelled to say "hang on, do you not think that just looks like an utterly ridiculous amount of food to serve to paying customers?". With a couple of beers and a couple of lemonades the bill came to £72. When I got home, I made myself a toasted cheese sandwich.