If vegetables are so delicious, then why do so many vegetarian and vegan restaurants insist on making them resemble meat instead?
It’s never been easy eating out as a vegetarian in London. Prior to the noughties, your choices were largely divided between Indian restaurants of variable quality and hemp-ridden Mildred’s-type establishments which were almost universally dreadful. Serving an expansive mish-mash of dishes from disparate cuisines, often with little in common, is usually a recipe for mediocre dreck in carnivorous restaurants. The results tend to be even more wretchedly inedible in vegetarian restaurants, where some beans and Quorn are lazily substituted for meat.
You may think that the rise of veganism has improved matters and it has, as long you’re happy eating faux versions of burgers, fried chicken and other fast foods. It’s completely understandable to want a vegetarian/vegan version of something you wouldn’t otherwise be able to have, especially if that something is a faff to prepare at home and provides a sense of indulgent satisfaction to boot.
But faux meat, at least as it currently exists, has always struck this unrepentant carnivore as transitional kindergarten food. Passable and even desirable versions of burgers and hot dogs may appeal to some. But barring a series of technological leaps forwards, faux meat can’t currently replicate the pleasures of meaty foods such as chorizo, Texan barbecue brisket, Beijing-style roast duck and otoro sashimi – and certainly not on an affordable basis either.
Vegetarian and vegan dishes that don’t pretend to be something else, that are comfortable in their own skin and do things that only entirely meat-free foods are capable of achieving are, in my mind, infinitely preferable whether you’re giving up meat entirely or just reducing your intake. Such dishes that don’t have to shaped, processed and reformed to replicate something else are not only easier to make, but more likely to be eaten and enjoyed in the long term, time after time.
Bubala is a Spitalfields restaurant that serves exactly that kind of grown-up vegetarian and vegan food. In drawing inspiration from the already veg-friendly culinary traditions of the Levant and the Maghreb, Bubala easily transcends what passes for much of the the meat-free restaurant food in London and achieves what so many meat-apers fail to accomplish.
It’s actually worth eating at.
Vegan dishes at Bubala
If you eat only one thing at Bubala, then make it the laffa flatbread. Soft and elastically tearable, its addictively moreish qualities were helped along by an arguably overaggressive pinch of salt. Even so, this naan-esque carb fest was the stuff that dreams are made of.
Despite its name, the grapefruit ezme with tahini tasted more like a tomato salad, but turned up to 11 due to the presence of the citrus. Its stridently tangy bitterness made it an effective counterpoint to some of Bubala’s heavier dishes.
Pumpkin tirshy was effectively a sweet puree of the vegetable. Despite the alleged presence of preserved lemon and olives, it proved to be overpoweringly sweet for the Flame Haired Squelchie. A disappointingly one-note dish.
The veganified version of Bubala’s hummus removes the burnt butter to this dish’s detriment. The chickpea paste proved to be too watery and tame with not enough nuttiness. The Flame Haired Squelchie speculated that it may have been made with too much aquafaba and not enough chickpeas or tahini.
Taut, firm and slippery chunks of shiitake and oyster mushrooms came skewered and slicked with a glaze that imparted a tangy umami.
Bubala’s falafel is made from fava beans rather than chickpeas or broad beans, which I’m increasingly convinced yields a superior fritter treat. Yieldingly soft on the outside, then fluffy and moreish on the inside with a gentle nuttiness courtesy of tahini.
Fried aubergine was too thinly sliced and crispy for my liking, with much of the eggplant’s distinctive qualities lost in the process. Still, the zingy and sprightly charms of the zhoug and date sauce helped make up for it.
Firm trunks of crunchy cauliflower and romanesco broccoli came in a lightly moreish and tangy smoked tomato sauce, although the alleged presence of ras el hanout and freekeh didn’t impart as much spiced depth and character as I would’ve expected from those Maghrebi spice and cereal mixes.
A dressing made from orange blossom and limes gave crisp baby gem leaves a tangy sourness. Not all fruit-based salad dressings have to be sweet and sugary and we’re all better off for it.
Haters of sprouts needn’t worry as Bubala sheaved the devil midget cabbages into such small bits that the green flecks might as well have been anything. This proved to be entirely fitting as the shredded sprouts were merely the conveyor for the tangy sweetness of sliced kumquats as well as lightly piquant chillies and crunchy fried shallots. That combination of sweetness and hot spice here was the real deal, not the faded luminescent orange impersonator found in a supermarket bottle of ‘sweet chilli’ sauce. The combo made these sprouts unexpectedly brisk yet refreshing.
Although billed as coconut and cardamom-flavoured, the sorbet tasted more of the fruit than the spice. While it was still a smooth and refreshing counterpoint to the sweet and sour notes of the roasted plums, in the end this dessert wasn’t especially pleasurable or memorable as neither sorbet nor plums were anywhere as bold and distinctive as their menu descriptions would have you believe.
Vegetarian dishes at Bubala
The ‘full’ vegetarian version of the hummus sees the addition of burnt butter, which added an addictive caramel-like sweet richness to the proceedings. So much so, that the hummus tasted of little else. Still, I can’t quibble too much if Bubala insists on giving us a socially acceptable way of gorging on caramelised butter.
Bubala’s pickle plate was surprisingly delightful. Sour, sugary and umami chunks of tomato were like ketchup, but with a chewy mouthfeel. Cauliflower florets had a warmth reminiscent of cumin and mustard, while carrots were unexpectedly curry-like in their moreishness. This flavoursomely sophisticated pickle plate is the closest any London restaurant, that I’ve been to, has come to replicating the delights of Japan’s pickling tradition. And in the most unanticipated of places too.
Thick, creamy folds of labneh had a moreish punch courtesy of chunky garlic cloves. This wasn’t the end of the labneh’s charms, with a generous dusting of za’atar providing a bitter pepperiness that melded into the garlic’s moreishness. All this might sound overwhelming, but it was perfectly balanced with the labneh’s soothing creaminess proving the perfect partner for the bold flavours of the spices.
Bubala’s halloumi was probably made from ewe’s milk. The milky caramelised crust yielded to reveal a light fluffiness that’s a world away from the squeaky supermarket shelf-fillers made from cow’s milk. The cheese was made even more delightful by the floral sweetness of honey which, unexpectedly, also had a lightly bitter edge. Halloumi has rarely been more wondrous on these shores.
Bubala’s fattoush was unexpectedly dull. The feta was an understated wallflower, while there wasn’t enough of either the sharp red onions or the sumac. The best part of this Levantine salad was the crisp, crunchily moreish kadayif which took the place of the more traditional fried/toasted bread. Disappointing, overall.
Bubala’s take on ful was surprisingly dull, heavy and leaden. The best part of this bean stew wasn’t actually the stew itself. The crisp then fluffy and light, yet utterly moreish fried flatbread was so addictive that it would give the laffa a run for its money if it were offered as a separate dish/side in its own right.
The bitterness of cabbage was neatly counterbalanced by an intoxicatingly nutty mix of tahini and crushed hazelnuts. If only the woeful cabbage dishes of my childhood school lunches had been this well executed.
In a similar vein, the bitterness of raddichio was neatly counterbalanced by sweet crescent-shaped cuttings of pear, milky crumbs of feta and the crunchy sweet nuttiness of candied walnut. The meagre servings of the latter was frustratingly fleeting, which left me panting for more. Still, that was the only fault in an otherwise superlative salad.
Confit potato latkes are Bubala’s take on the confit potatoes from the Quality Chop House. Although described on the menu as latkes, they turned out to be more like eminently refined hash browns. The translucently golden and crisp mantles of each tuber cuboid revealed delicately moist layers of starchy sweetness on the inside. These little beauties were not only consistently good across multiple visits, but the quality of the accompanying chilli-flecked aioli improved from a bland non-starter to a creamy, moreish condiment tinged with a gentle warmth.
Tahini and tangerine ice cream was – unsurprisingly – highly reminiscent of halva in its profoundly bold nuttiness. The tangy, syrup-like richness of the date sauce added a touch of indulgence to the refreshingly smooth ice cream.
Although the salted caramel truffles are probably brought in, that shouldn’t stop you from ordering them. While more tangy sweet and gooey than salty, these little confections were still eminently enjoyable.
Perhaps I’ll have to eat my introductory words when scientists and food technologists wheel out a perfectly formed, eminently affordable meat-free pork belly or lamb shish. Until then, the mature and confident meat-free cooking of Bubala is the sensible way forward for meat dodgers and meat lovers alike. The dishes here don’t ape meat, because they don’t need to. The result is one of the very few vegetarian/vegan meals where I hadn’t missed the presence of meat one jot. In not attempting to replicate the sinew, fat and muscle of meat, Bubala shows what meat-free cooking can truly be in all its crunchy, nutty, zesty, zingy glory. And it all owes a huge debt to the cooking of North Africa and the Western Mediterranean Levant, an expansive set of culinary traditions often overlooked in the West. If we’re lucky, other restaurants will follow in Bubala’s footsteps and we’ll be bold enough to take what they’re offering us. In a sea of fake meat, that lifeboat can’t come quickly enough.
What to order: Almost everything…
What to skip: …apart from the pumpkin tirshy and possibly the fattoush and ful.
Address: 65 Commercial Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6BD
Phone: 0207 392 2111
Opening Hours: Monday 18.00-22.00. Tuesday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.30. Closed Sunday.
Average cost for one person, including soft drinks, when shared between two: £35-45 approx.