Thursday, 23 June 2016
The Barbary, Covent Garden
Being a 22-seater no-reservations restaurant by the team behind the wildly successful Palomar, the Barbary was always likely to be popular. Many of the same reasons that had them queuing down Rupert Street (or rather, had them putting their names down and then sitting out the wait in Spuntino up the road) are present and correct here; a swish bar setting and open kitchen, intimate personalised service, an interesting menu of modern Middle Eastern dishes. And I loved the Palomar, like most people did. So why am I not quite as knocked out by the Barbary?
Part of it could be my fault. Or rather, my friend's. Mindful of the many wonderful things Palomar did with bread and vegetables I thought the Barbary would be a good place to take a vegan, and with a little guidance from our superbly knowledgable waitress we figured out what she could have and what she couldn't and ended up with a good selection of sharable vegetable dishes, plus a couple of meaty and fishy things just for me. My worry is that in the general hubub I missed some of the more detailed ingredient discussions and there's a chance that a couple of these dishes usually come with yoghurt or cheese or something and which were omitted in an effort to "veganise" them. And if that's the case, perhaps I'm not judging them in their complete state. So with that in mind, and apologies in advance if so, here's what we ate:
The highlight of the entire meal almost was the bread. There was this lovely brittle and bubbly naan, brushed with oil and lightly salted, which had a good savoury flavour to match the addictive textures. It reminded me very much of the house flatbread at Craft in Greenwich, and you've ever been there you'll know that's high praise.
And this elongated "Jerusalem Bagel", covered in toasted sesame seeds and warm and fluffy inside. Much like at Palomar, it's clear a lot of effort has gone into the bread offering at the Barbary and it's great to see somewhere trying something other than the usual white rolls or buying in sourdough from St John.
House pickles were good - not too sharp or too sweet, with a gentle curry note (I think) and an interesting selection of vegetables. My favourites were a couple of squares of cabbage leaf, which had a nice bite, and the celery, whose powerful natural flavour always works well pickled.
This was "Tbecha Roasted Tomatoes", and were fine if you like cold leftover ratatouille but not of a great deal of interest otherwise. Perhaps they would have been a bit more dynamic warmed up but still would have been underseasoned, and one-note in texture and flavour.
Similarly these chickpeas - "Msabacha" - one of those things that I'm sure could be fantastic if it had the advantage of more vibrantly flavourful vegetables (as I'm told are more commonplace in the parts of the world the dish originated) or even a bit more confidence with the spices. As it is, a sloppy bowl of bland lukewarm chickpeas and tomato pulp is not enough to get the pulse racing I'm afraid.
Roasted aubergine was better, thanks to some nice texture from toasted almonds and a wonderful smoky charcoal flavour from the grilled vegetable itself. You're either a fan of aubergine or you're not, and one man's "smooth" is another man's "slimy", but I enjoyed this dish, and the way the herbs and chilli livened the smooth tahini sauce that surrounded it.
Now it was time for my non-vegan friendly choices. Octopus had been slow-cooked to a very soft texture and then finished off on the grill, meaning you got a few of the little suckers all crisp and charred but that the main body of the tentacle was rather mushy. I know there will be plenty of people who like the texture of their octopus to be exactly like this, but I find it rather offputting and would much rather it retained a bit of bite. Also it came dressed with more pulpy cold chickpea, which didn't help offset the general mushy blandness. What's wrong with a bit of lemon?
Pata Negra neck was as good as I'd hoped for, though. Cooked perfectly pink with a fantastic char from the coals, it was the finest imaginable advertisement for this wonderful animal and actually quite a generous portion for £13 bearing in mind Iberico pork doesn't come cheap. But I'm afraid one beautiful slab of Pata Negra does not a meal make, and this dish stood as more of a consolation prize than a satisfying grand finale.
The bill for two people came to £53 with no booze, which is by no means a fortune, and there was a part of me enjoyed the experience at the Barbary, watching the chefs go about their business and spotting what was on other people's plates. But still, I left unsatisfied, with little of the sense of theatre and passion I'd found at their sister restaurant, and a distinct impression that in that short hop across town something had been left behind. Whether it's the deliberately "stripped-back" menu style (Palomar menu items were descriptive and seductive; the terse Barbary menu - "Duck hearts, Swordfish, Lamb cutlet" - reads like a shopping list) or the self-consciously confident way they filled up the (rather uncomfortable actually) bar seats strictly from left-to-right despite half the room being empty, it all just missed a certain sense of, well, fun. Or maybe I just need to lighten up and learn to love mushy chickpea a bit more. Either way, I guess there's always the Palomar.
Can't face the wait at the Barbary? See where else is good in the area with my app.