No matter how much we try to deny it, we all love sequels. You might tell your friends how much you enjoyed that quirky Spanish art house film that no one has ever heard of, while secretly sneaking out to see the latest Marvel blockbuster. I can feel a similar sort of vibe in London’s restaurants. Besides all the usual chains, even plucky independents are sprouting sister restaurants and spin-offs – Bao, Berber and Q and even Rök, among others, have or are expanding beyond their original incarnations.
The Palomar, the West End’s Jewish-ish restaurant of the moment, has opened a second site in The Seven Dials’ Neal’s Yard. While The Barbary’s menu is similarly eclectic, taking in influences from across North Africa and the Mediterranean Near East, it’s a much smaller venue that doesn’t take reservations. There are just 24 covers arrayed around a counter overlooking the small galley-like kitchen. If you can mount and unmount the stools without looking like a haemorrhoidal John Wayne, then you have more consummate grace than I ever will. Although the view over the small brigade-style operation is endlessly entertaining, the stools can be uncomfortable – especially if you have a voluminous Kardashian-style backside as I do. It’s all worth putting up with though.
First things first
It’s very easy to over order at The Barbary if you have a ravenous appetite. You shouldn’t skip the naan though – thinner and crisper than the South Asian incarnation we’re all familiar with, it had a surprisingly bitter, sourdough-esque quality to it that was nonetheless pleasing. The sharp and umami tomatoes served at room temperature are a good topping for the naan – it somewhat resembles a renegade ratatouille that’s done a runner before the courgettes and aubergines could jump in. The garlicky harissa-esque Yemeni zhug, in both green and red pepper dominated varieties, wasn’t spicy hot enough for my liking though.
Two separate sets of fellow diners to either side of me decided to skip the octopus, either out of eye-rolling squeamishness or a sigh-inducing lack of faith in the skills of the kitchen and the provenance of the produce. Don’t follow the example of those fools – the firm, smoke-licked tentacles were enjoyable in their own right, but even better when taken with the nutty tahini and the buttery, nutty, parsley-flecked chickpeas. The latter were especially good and deserve headline status alongside the octopus – cooked just so, they verged on mushiness but stepped back settling into snug tenderness. You simply must have this dish.
Firm, milky chunks of monkfish had a lightly crisp exterior and were served in an oddly incongruous XO-style sauce. It wasn’t spicy or punchy enough to warrant the inclusion of the refreshing labneh, but I’ll take it anyway. The firm and supple cabbage leaves were well-executed, but added little to the already mixed proceedings. Think of it as one of your five a day.
Disappointingly, the duck hearts had none of the offaly charm and yieldingly crisp texture I was expecting. More like cheap and cheerful sausage slices, they weren’t bad but ultimately had little to recommend them.
It would be a severe mistake to avoid The Barbary’s vegetable-only dishes. Chunky cauliflower florets were lightly creamy and bitter, both flavours neatly complimented by the sharp and umami tomato relish.
The fleshy, creamy and smoky aubergine was even better, its visceral nature neatly offset by the odd but ultimately complimentary companions of lightly bitter herbs, sharply sweet raspberries and nutty tahini. Eggplant rarely tastes this good.
Hot summer nights demand ice cream. Although the light sesame flavour of The Barbary’s halva ice cream only became noticeable late in the game as I mowed my way through the creamy, smooth and refreshingly cool globes, this was still a crowd pleaser and rightly so.
Going back for seconds
The Barbary’s Jerusalem bagel may be covered in sesame seeds, but it’s otherwise a far cry from the chewy, stodgy fairground staple most of us are familiar with. It was chewy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside, but the accompanying za’tar, either for sprinkling or dipping, was a muted and unworthy accompaniment.
It’s best to order some smoky, creamy baba ghanoush to go with the bagel. Although not quite as velvety smooth and boldly consistent in strength of flavour as the very best baba ghanoush, it was still very pleasing. Even better was the ridiculously moreish combo of creamy, nutty chickpeas, cooked just so, and sharp, umami, parsley-flecked tomatoes. Some might moan about the fact that it’s served at room temperature. Don’t be one of them.
Much has been written about Galician sirloin, but I found myself oddly unmoved by The Barbary’s version of this beef cut. Dense and mildly chewy, it wasn’t as tender or as rich as I was expecting. It was left to the accompaniments to save the day – not the taut and supple leek, but the remarkably bittersweet and lightly spiced relish. Its layered sophistication was by far the most memorable thing on this plate.
Dense and beef-like pata negra pork neck was similarly competently executed but ultimately forgettable. More worth of praise was the moreish yet fruity reduction and the tenderised garlic cloves. Initially subtle, gently rising into butteriness and then a punchy heat, it was a real multilayered treat that livened up an otherwise so-so dish.
If all that garlic sounds a bit too rich, then you can cool off with the kohlrabi salad. Julienned pieces had a sharp and lightly sweet apple-like quality that was made even better by a sharp sumac dressing, crunchy almond slices, peppery rocket, firm peas and a thin, lightly creamy dressing that wasn’t too cloying. If only all salads were this good.
Provocatively named, the hashtart wasn’t as addictive as its name or its overenthusiastic description by my waitress would have you believe. A pistachio-flecked treacle tart-style filling paired with a buttery shortbread-esque crust still made for a dense, nutty and gently sweet dessert of understated accomplishment.
Firm and crisp pickled cabbage, celery, carrots and cauliflower tinted with turmeric, both in colour and taste, were a fine nibbling distraction. Save room for the beetroot salad though. Although lacking in earthiness, the cool, yieldingly crisp chunks were still very enjoyable. Enhanced by crisp spring onions, crunchy nuts and a glug of soothing yogurt, it’s a salad that’s both refreshingly cool and moreish.
Swordfish steak cooked rare had a seared exterior and a tender, glossy pink interior. The clean after taste provided a platform for the sweet and umami tomatoes, punchy capers and the milky tzatziki-style yogurt to show off. Compared to its more distinctive stablemates, this swordfish dish feels like it could’ve been served up in a dozen other London restaurants. It was nevertheless pleasingly executed.
Lamb cutlets had a crisp crust and a tender interior. Both the cutlets and the minty tzatziki-style yogurt were overshadowed by the unexpectedly floral fragrance of the roasted, wilted greens that I couldn’t quite identify. It wasn’t a patch on the superb lamb chops available at Gunpowder, but it’s still worth ordering – purely for the herby smell alone.
I didn’t have high hopes for the chicken msachen, but it turned out to be one of The Barbary’s best meat dishes. Moist, meaty and tender chunks of chicken were topped with a crisp and sumac dusted layer of skin. It would only have been half a dish without the sumac-dusted yogurt and the sweet sharpness of the caramelised onions though.
If you only have one dessert at The Barbary, then make sure it’s the knafeh. This pastry’s crisp crust of fine noodle threads had a subtle taste of pistachio and gave way to reveal a gooey cheesy centre. Apparently a mix of mozzarella and goat’s cheese, the creamy and subtly moreish mixture was reminiscent of Oaxacan cheese. Crisp, chewy and cheesy – if that doesn’t make for a homely and warming dessert, then I’m not sure what does.
Go Fourth and multiply
Firm spears of asparagus, cooked just so, were dressed in a black tahini. Although visually distinctive, this twilight hued tahini was less pleasing in the mouth with a nuttiness that was more muted than usual.
Although a skewer of prawns didn’t manage to retain the crustacean’s distinctive taste, it was still pleasing thanks to an initial smoky hit and a firm bite. A sweet caponata-style bed of vegetables and a squirt of yogurt made for a fine, well-rounded dish.
The chunks of meat in the goat goulash weren’t especially earthy, but they were tender. The stew itself was considerably less spiced, with the exception of a small standalone jalapeno, than the Viennese renditions that I’m most familiar with. Instead, a bed of torn bread pieces provided some supple starch while a filling-free filo parcel sat up top. The partially deconstructed nature of this goulash was odd and it’s hardly an exemplar of the genre, but it’s satisfying enough when taken on its own terms.
I expected the seemingly out of place tuna tataki to be a car crash of Wabi-esque proportions, but it turned out to be surprisingly memorable for almost all the right reasons. The delicate and tender slices of tuna, seared blue, were meaty fine, but it was the accompanying sauce that stole the show here. Sticky and syrup-like, yet also blessed with spicy, sweet and umami hints. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did to an extraordinary degree. I licked up every last drop.
The knafeh was just as good as it was before.
There’s no question that eating at The Barbary is a more cramped and less comfortable experience compared to The Palomar. But constraints and less-than-ideal circumstances can spur inventiveness and force a restaurant to focus on the things that really matter. Reservations aren’t taken, but the service was uniformly warm, friendly and efficient. Quarters were cramped, but this bred neighbourliness rather than resentment. Most of the duff dishes from The Palomar, from trend-chasing raw dishes to silly trowel and slate presentations, have been jettisoned with a tighter focus on dishes that more closely resemble their Maghrebi, Levantine et al antecedents.
But there are still rough edges. The red meat dishes are, for the most part, merely okay – to the point that The Barbary is one of those rare central London restaurants where vegetarians and pescetarians can eat better than salad-dodging carnivores. And then there’s the cost. Unless you stick to tapas-style grazing and bar-hopping, I found it tricky to eat for less then £55 a head while still walking away satiated. Despite all this, I found myself charmed by The Barbary. Although I prevaricated and procrastinated for days over the final star rating, and almost considered breaking my rule against half-stars, in the end this is a reliably good Four Star restaurant. I don’t regret eating at The Barbary, not one bit, and I’m willing to bet that you won’t either.
What to order: Naan; Bagel; Tomatoes; Octopus; Aubergine; Halva ice cream; Knafeh; Chickpeas and tomatoes; Beetroot salad; Chicken msachen; Tuna tataki; Cauliflower
What to avoid: Duck hearts
Name: The Barbary
Address: 16 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9DP
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 17.00-22.00. Closed Monday. Lunch service coming soon.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £55-65 approx. (£75 approx. if you push the boat out)