Moo, cluck and oink
Disclosure: A 10% discount was applied to the bill for my fourth meal, unsolicited. This was accepted only out of politeness.
I originally had no intention of reviewing Le Bab. The first thing that put me off was the location – Soho’s Kingly Court (home of the risible Whyte and Brown) is effectively a mini shopping centre and, outside of South East Asia, malls tend to be the last places you’d want to eat out at. The second thing was the social media descriptions of the food served at Le Bab – ‘posh’ or ‘gourmet’ kebabs. ‘Posh’ is a loaded word full of classist connotations that has no place in the world of food where dishes should be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic origin. ‘Gourmet’ is so overused that it belongs in the semantic bin next to other similarly worn-out, now meaningless words such as ‘wellness’ and ‘pretentious’. Once I had a cup of tea and calmed down though, I found plenty to enjoy at Le Bab.
Le Bab is an attractive looking restaurant, almost to a fault. Although Iznik-style tiles decorate part of the interior, most of it is stripped back to the point of nakedness. Not only can you see the rafters, but the floorboards bend and bounce so much that I could feel staff approaching my table even before I could see them.
First things first
Falafel has been given an unnecessary carnivorous makeover at Le Bab. The taste and texture of the beef shin flecks was hard to distinguish, let alone enjoy, amidst the interior of the deep-fried balls which oddly tasted of broad beans. The excessively hard and crunchy shell was hard work on the jaw, too. A poor start.
The decision to use pork instead of lamb in the shawarma was a curious one. Although the flecks of pig did have a somewhat moreish rub, it wasn’t especially distinctive while the pork was lacking in fattiness. It was left to the crisp radishes, refreshing blobs of yoghurt and the stiff, malty lavash-like wrap to save this kebab from being a complete missed opportunity.
The ‘fondue fries’ felt like a poutine that had flunked out of finishing school. The floppy chips were also leathery, but at least they had been made out of whole slices of potato. The melted cheese on the side was allegedly made from Stilton, but the boozy addition of stout was the dominant element here. It made for a one-note condiment on a half-baked portion of chips.
Le Bab’s crème brulee had a crisp and sugary crackling, but the wispily ineffectual custard underneath left me unmoved.
Going back for seconds
Lesser reviewers would have cut their losses after such a woefully uneven first meal, but that’s not always fair or thorough which is why I usually make repeated visits to restaurants before coming to a final verdict. I was still initially sceptical about the savoury lokma, but this meat-ified pastry turned out to be surprisingly good. The soft, glazed spherical shell gave way to reveal a creamy and distinctly flavoured chicken liver pate that also had a pleasingly spicy edge to it.
Dense and gamey venison koftes had a woody undertone that was neatly complimented by the plum-like sweetness of the accompanying jam. The creamy mayo and so-so vegetables weren’t really necessary, but this was still a good kebab made all the more enjoyable by a repeat appearance of the lavash-style flatbread.
Bitter and crunchy endive leaves were joined by sweet and equally crunchy pomegranate as well as crisp red onions and shallots. All of this made for an effective salad, although some softer elements would’ve been welcome.
Oddly labelled on the menu as a risotto, the maftoul is more like a large grained cous cous. It had a surprising mung bean-style quality to it, ranging from lightly bitter and tart to earthy and somewhat creamy. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely an acquired taste that becomes both more palatable and interesting when taken with the herby sprigs and measly morsels of milky, salty feta.
My antipathy towards chicken, the meat of choice for children and invalids, has been stated in other reviews, but the familiar chook can be done well. Although not class-leading, the chicken shish here was meaty and lightly smoky as well as moist – a rare trifecta for a chicken kebab. The modestly crispy skin wasn’t quite the crackling-like topping I was hoping for, but the modestly tart pickles and gently nutty and sweet squash puree enhanced the smoky, meaty qualities of the chicken well. Surprisingly, none of the kebab wraps at Le Bab suffered from excessive spillage when guiding them into my waiting maw.
The endive and pomegranate salad was just as good as it was before.
Go fourth and multiply
‘Do you want to help me eat a pig’s head?’
‘Has the answer to that question ever been no?’
And thus, with uncharacteristic wit and grace, Snaggletooth joined me for my final meal at Le Bab. If there’s one dish at Le Bab which will inspire all sorts of headlines, Instagram posts and Cameron-esque puns, it’s the pig’s head. Or, at the very least, it will inspire rubbernecking curiosity and outright revulsion as the pig’s head is brought to your table for your inspection, approval and photography before being taken away for the meat to be deboned.
Don’t order the pig’s head if you’re in a rush – the cranium takes about half an hour to braise in stock and then a good 15-20 minutes to slice and dice. The large pile of bitty deboned meat was unsurprisingly unctuous, rich and fatty given the dominant presence of fat and collagen. Despite having cold feet after staring into our meat’s snout and teeth prior to deboning, Snaggletooth agreed that it was uncommonly delicious – especially when spooned into one of the lavash wraps served on the side and enjoyed with the julienned carrots, onions and turnips. The reduced stock is served as a dipping or spooning sauce and had a surprising tartness which, along with the sharp onions, helped cut through the substantial richness of the head fat.
There’s another level of enjoyment to be had with the crackling. The deep red, lacquer-like pig skin ranged from crunchy and somewhat oily to perfectly and evenly crisp with a meaty undertone. Although I have deep respect for vegetarians, deeply sensual cuts of meat like perfectly cooked bits of crackling and expertly rendered hunks of fatty pork are two of the many reasons why I could never join them.
While vegetarians may not have much to choose from Le Bab’s menu, the one vegetarian kebab available was thankfully a winner. Firm and milky chunks of paneer tinged with (what I’m fairly certain was) turmeric and cumin. The mildly earthy beetroot puree and crispy onions complimented the cheese well, while the same quality lavash wrap made a welcome repeat appearance. A paneer kebab isn’t the most original idea in the world, but sod it. When it works, it works.
The savoury lokma filled with chicken liver pate was just as good as it was before. Although Snaggletooth wished for more pate filling in the centre of each doughnut, he could quite happily eat a whole truck load of the things.
Kebabs are already such a storied, well-formed, well-developed and much-loved form of food that any attempts at innovation need to be done with care to avoid creating a needlessly modernised bastardisation of a cherished classic. Despite a disastrous start, Le Bab has largely managed to avoid this pitfall and created some surprisingly elegant and tastefully contemporised kebabs that justify their modest premium over traditional Turkish fare. Plus they do a cracking pig’s head too.
What to order: Pig’s head; Paneer kebab; Venison kofte kebab; Chicken liver pate lokma
What to skip: Creme brûlée; Pork shawarma
Name: Le Bab
Address: Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby Street, Soho, London W1B 5PW
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon – 15.00 and 18.00-23.00; closed Sunday.
Reservations: essential for dinner
Average cost for one person including soft drinks but excluding tip: £30-35 approx.