Middle Eastern BBQ sequel goes back to basics
When most restaurants decide to expand by opening new branches, they usually sprout carbon copy clones of the original, try to make each new location different from all the others or try to strike some of middle-ground balance. Berber and Q, the flawed yet generally still superb Middle Eastern-themed Haggerston barbecue restaurant, has taken a different approach.
As its name suggests, Berber and Q’s new Shawarma Bar in Exmouth Market strips the menu back to basics. It’s divided into four sections – shawarma, rice bowls, sandwiches and vegetable side dishes. Most of the meats make repeat appearances in different sections, so you can have your lamb or beef stuffed into a pitta rather than served on rice or carb-less if you so wish.
If the address and premises look familiar, that’s because the Shawarma Bar has taken over the premises of what used to be the well-intentioned but wobbily executed pork restaurant Blackfoot. Reservations are only taken for lunch and it’d probably be a good idea to book on and around weekends given its close proximity to the heart of Islington. Snaggletooth and I didn’t have any trouble snagging a table one early midweek evening.
Lamb shawarma might just be another name for lamb doner (for all intents and purposes), but Berber and Q’s version here is still worth seeking out. Dense, moist, smoky and meaty pieces of lamb had a fruity sweetness that meshed well with the umami tomato and tahini salad. Chewy then fluffy soft flatbread, or lettuce for those of you still skipping carbs, are provided for scooping the smoky, sweet and nutty morsels into your mouth.
The lamb kofta rice bowl was less successful. Although the rice itself was moreishly dressed, the somewhat bland and dry meatballs were a let down. Although still coarsely textured, what I really wanted were moist elongated lozenges of offaly, smoky lamb.
Another meaty disappointment arrived in the form of the braised beef short rib stuffed into a pitta. The moderately unctuous strands and chunks of beef short rib weren’t bad, but they were hard to appreciate given the mass of salad and chunks of sweet potato. This sandwich was nothing if not generously sized though – like all the meat dishes here, there was more than enough to share between myself and Snaggletooth.
Although the meat unsurprisingly gets top billing at the Berber and Q Shawarma Bar, you would be a fool to overlook the vegetarian side dishes. Tahini, rich in bold sesame, and creamy, nutty chickpeas were a revelation for Snaggletooth who had only ever had far less satisfactory versions before.
Although you get a portion of mixed tomatoes and tahini with the lamb shawarma, you can never have too much of the wonderfully nutty tahini and the umami tomatoes in your life.
Surprisingly, the chunk of braised cauliflower wasn’t as creamy or as bitter as the best examples of this increasingly well-appreciated vegetable, but it was still good enough to win over Snaggletooth who had only ever had far less accomplished cauliflower dishes before.
The one side dish that came close to duffness was, surprisingly, the labneh. More like a chunky cottage or cream cheese than the smoother and milkier versions that I’m used to, it wasn’t as refreshing as I would’ve liked – especially with the punchy chilli and dill garnishes unbalancing everything.
An ice cream pitta sandwich sounds bonkers, but the reality was a little more mundane than the crazy name would have you believe. The ‘pitta bread’ was actually a fried doughnut pastry. Crisp and sugary, it was filled with a gently but still enjoyably sesame flavoured ice cream as well as bits of melted chocolate and caramelised banana. Warm and crisp, then cool, sweet and nutty, it was surprisingly enjoyable even if it did leave me longing for an even stronger flavoured sesame ice cream.
Snaggletooth’s cardamom malabi was light on the titular spice, but this did at least mean it didn’t overwhelm the milkiness of the lightly sweet and just set panna cotta-like malabi. A subtle, but still pleasing dessert overall.
Although it’s a shame that Berber and Q’s second restaurant isn’t more ambitious than the first, the Shawarma Bar’s concentration on doing a few dishes well is admirable. Inevitably, this pared back menu combined with the kitchen’s almost alarmingly fast serving times makes the Shawarma Bar a somewhat utilitarian eatery rather than a destination restaurant. You either begin or end your night here, rather than lingering for hours with friends.
What to order: Lamb shawarma; Almost anything vegetarian; Ice cream pitta sandwich
What to skip: Braised short rib stuffed pitta; Labneh
Name: Berber and Q Shawarma Bar
Address: 46 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE
Phone: 020 7837 1726
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday noon-15.00 and 18.00-23.00; Friday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 18.00-midnight; closed Sunday.
Reservations: essential the closer you get to the weekend, but only accepted at lunchtime
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £40 approx. (you’ll spend about £10-15 less per person if you aren’t as ravenous as we were)