The incredibly satisfying BBQ you never knew you needed
If you’re a superficial knee-jerk reactionary, then you’ll hate Berber and Q before you even step through the front door. It’s located in Haggerston, near the epicentre of horn-rimmed plaid-shirtedness that is Shoreditch. Heck, its next door neighbour is a board games cafe. Everything is ‘reclaimed’ from the premises, a converted railway arch, to many of the fittings and fixtures inside such as the uneven tiles lining the bar. The food combines two of London’s most ‘fashionable’ food ‘trends’ – barbecue and Middle Eastern food. Although plenty of plates are present, there are also lots of jars and trays lined with grease-proof paper, which will infuriate the We Want Plates crowd. Reservations aren’t taken, so it’s first come, first seated. If you’re a dyed in the wool Harvester fan, then all of this will seem utterly insufferable.
But what appear to be weaknesses to the uninitiated turn out to be near unassailable strengths. Like almost every other Hoxton/Shoreditch restaurant I’ve ever been to, the staff at Berber and Q were all warm and welcoming. The interior hits some modern restaurant decor cliches, such as exposed bricks and concrete floors, but there is a touch of quirky personality with fez hats as lampshades and hypnotically elegant bathrooms. And then there’s the food which is worth queuing for and then some. The ‘Middle Eastern’ barbecue takes inspiration from the Maghreb, the Levant, Israel, Iran and almost everywhere in between, with an additional and obvious American influence, to bold, delicious effect.
All of the barbecued meats are accompanied by soft, warm, fluffy pitta bread to soak up any juices and it’s a world apart from the flat, limp placemats available in supermarkets and kebab shops up and down the country. Apart from a placid initial appearance during my first meal, the accompanying harissa, cumin salt and garlic sauce were spicy, flavour-enhancing and lip-smackingly bold respectively.
If you’re short, don’t be tempted by the window-side counter seating. The mismatched heights of the stools and counter make for such torturously uncomfortable seating, even the CIA would blush.
Although all the meats are also accompanied by a refreshing salad of radishes, dill, charred onions and tomatoes and fresh leaves, it’s definitely worth ordering the various pickled vegetables. These help cut through the richness of the meats, as well as some of the numerous mezze.
First things first
The tender, moist strands of pulled lamb may sound little different from the pulled pork at an American-style barbecue restaurant, but their earthiness sets them apart from their Yankee porcine counterpart. The lamb could’ve been a little firmer, but it was still pleasing – especially when the earthiness was emphasised by the cumin salt and garlic sauce.
Although the merguez sausage wasn’t quite as smoky and meaty as the very best examples of this North African staple, its coarse moistness was still a hit.
The spicy tartness of the firm pickled carrot slices was not only pleasing in its own right, but helped counterbalance the relative heaviness of the lamb. The same can also be said for the curry caraway cabbage, which was not only tart but had a slight aniseed-y flavour too.
The eggplant used in the aubergine salad was fleshy and lightly smoky, but the smokiness wasn’t anywhere as pronounced as it would be in a good baba ghanoush. The helping of creamy, mildly nutty and garlicky yoghurt helped compensate for this to an extent, although I wish there had been more of the crunchy and nutty walnuts. What little there was added some much need variation in texture.
The chunks of beetroot were surprisingly neutral-tasting, yet their sheer bulk meant they still managed to get in the way of enjoying the light yet creamy whipped feta and the sweetness of the candied orange. Disappointing.
Although the Rose Malabi sounds exotic, the bulk of this dessert was a lightly creamy creme brulee-style pudding. Set atop its quivering mass was a selection of sharp summer fruits, but far more interesting was the crunch of the candied pistachio. It resembled popping candy and was by far the most fun and interesting part of an otherwise by-the-numbers dessert.
Don’t be tempted by the iced tea. The watery brew tasted mostly of rose water with little tannic tea in evidence.
Going back for seconds
I hadn’t expected to find beef short rib, a cut commonly associated with American barbecue, on the menu at Berber and Q. Oddly, the portion consisted of two distinctly separate hunks of meat. One, served off the bone, was dry and uninteresting, both in taste and texture. Far better was the hunk served on the bone. Taut, slippery skin gave way to reveal a moist, woody mass of cow. Beefy, a little unctuous, tinged with hints of sweetness and bitterness and bound by strips of collagen and connective tissue to the bone. Although not as profoundly fatty as the best American barbecue beef short ribs and its sweet bitter flavours could’ve been more pronounced, this was still a hugely enjoyable beast feast.
Less successful were the harissa chicken wings. The chicken meat itself was tender, moist and lightly smoky. But if the same harissa that accompanied the bigger meat courses had been used here, then something has been profoundly lost in translation. Any contribution the harissa had made to the wings was negligible as far as I could tell.
The briney sweetness of the dill cucumber slices was a perfect antidote to the woody richness of the beef short rib.
The cauliflower shawarma is oddly-named if you’re used to the Arab meat dish. Regardless, the firm and lightly charred florets should not be passed over. Accompanied by creamy, slightly nutty tahini, taut bitter leaves and punchy parsley, the cauliflower is a crunchy, flavoursome delight.
Just as good was the Berber fattoush salad. The delightfully crispy and crunchy fried bread pieces were also a tad too oily, but well within bearable limits. Even without the fried bread, this salad would still be a multi-layered joy thanks to the sweet red onions, refreshing leaves, bitter za’atar, punchy parsley, hits of olive oil and a citrusy sumac tang.
Getting to third base
Berber and Q doesn’t advertise itself as halal or kosher, but I was still surprised to find pork belly on the menu. It wasn’t terribly distinguished pork belly though. While woody with a tinge of fruitiness, it was also quite dry and lacking in the fatty unctuousness I was expecting – the harissa, garlic sauce and cumin salt were all very much needed here.
Firm and sharp pickled cauliflower had the distinctive taste of turmeric. Already very pleasing in its own right, it reminded me of Indian vegetarian dishes when taken with a daubing of the garlic sauce taken from the meat.
If the turmeric cauliflower had a South Asian side to it, then the beans were reminiscent of America. The moderately firm beans would’ve been nothing though without the earthy shreds of tender lamb neck mixed into it.
Berber and Q could’ve easily coasted by when it came to the jar of olives, but numerous variants had been included. The olives ranged from dark and salty to briney and sweet, as well as sharp and lightly piquant.
The assortment of confit tomatoes seemed very fresh and untouched, and not confit at all, but were nonetheless exceptionally tasty. The soft slices ranged from lightly sweet and umami, to sharp and almost candy-like in their sweetness. The whole lot was lip-smackingly refreshing, especially when taken with the moreish cous cous and creamy, minty labneh.
The refreshing and milky creme fraiche would’ve been eminently scoffable on its own, but was made even better with punchy parsley, lightly spiced oil, hints of bitter za’atar and crunchy sea salt as well as sweet and sharp plum tomatoes. Scooping up this multi-layered mixture with the warm and fluffy pitta bread proved to be a delightful and very summery pleasure.
Go fourth and multiply
I usually skip chicken in favour of other meats, but a friendly waiter persuaded me to try the Iranian joojeh chicken thighs with his evocative description of its saffron, turmeric, yoghurt and lemon marinade. This recommendation proved to be spot on – the charred and exceptionally tender chunks of thigh meat would’ve been perfectly good without further embellishment, but the meat’s sweetness and herby bitterness proved to be utterly addictive and extremely satisfying.
Berber and Q’s hummus isn’t your average supermarket-level houmous. The lightly creamy, very nutty and slightly bitter spread was made even better by a scattering of whole chickpeas, a dash of fruity olive oil and slices of chilli providing occasional bursts of spiciness. I mopped up every last drop with the warm pitta.
The aubergine, yoghurt and walnut salad from my first visit had been replaced by a new eggplant dish. This new aubergine mezze was just as much a mixed bag as its predecessor though. There was more of the aubergine skin than there was of the tender, lightly smoky eggplant flesh, while the boiled egg halves added little. The bitter and tart dressing was delectable though, while the tomato and cucumber pieces were crisp and refreshing. Perhaps it’s time Berber and Q just admit defeat and introduce a good baba ghanoush instead.
The green beans come a close third behind the creme fraiche and the fattoush as my favourite summer dish of this year. Served cool, the crisp beans were made even more refreshing by a sharp, zesty dressing while the crunchy fried onion and bread pieces emphasised the beans’ crispness.
Although the chocolate and cardamom mousse was far less memorable than any of the savoury dishes, it was still a reasonably pleasing dessert. The smooth and fluffy mousse had a mildly rich bittersweetness to it as well as a hint of cardamom. It was the toppings that made this dessert though – crunchy morsels of honeycomb and slices of syrupy sweet candied orange. There’s the makings of a far better dessert in those last two ingredients right there.
Although there’s room for improvement at Berber and Q, from the cuts of meat used to the extra finesse needed in some of the vegetarian mezze as well as the desserts, none of that should detract from what the kitchen has accomplished here. There are so many seductive dishes on the menu, from the joojeh chicken thighs and the beef short rib to the creme fraiche and the confit tomatoes, that eating at Berber and Q is the most spine-tingling fun I’ve had with my clothes on in months. Surprising, hearty, multi-facted and utterly delicious.
What to order: Beef short rib; joojeh chicken thighs; all the pickles; Berber fattoush salad; Confit tomatoes; Creme fraiche.
What to avoid: Anything with aubergine in it
Name: Berber and Q
Address: Arch 338 Acton Mews, Haggerston, London E8 4EA
Phone: 020 7923 0829
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 18.00-23.00. Closed Mondays and lunchtimes. Kitchen closes 22.30 Tuesday-Saturday, 21.30 Sunday.
Reservations: not taken.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-40 approx.