This is how we are with wine and beautiful food: We want, and get drunk with wanting… — Rumi (1207 – 1273)
Kensington is one of my favourite parts of London, a triangle of three pleasures – the complex of museums (Science, Natural History, Victoria and Albert); music at the Royal Albert Hall; and meze or sweets at Comptoir Libanais.
Sure, it’s a chain; sure, there are probably better Middle Eastern joints in London. But when you’ve been under the brightly coloured eaves enough times, sipping on mint tea and swirling falafels in tahini and brushing flakes of honey-soaked puff-pastry from your lips, you end up getting pretty drunk with wanting.
And this, reader, is partly why I and the two chums visited Kazbar. Couched among a whole array of international boozers along the pedestrian walkway, it looks like a generic bar for the post-work crowd on the outside, but the staff obligingly lets us move indoors with its more evocative decor – tiled tables, curtains, arabesque lanterns for atmosphere. I’m beginning to feel it even before we place our orders.
The Middle East is the oldest crossroads of the human world; ever since humanity trekked out of Africa, it has been a place everyone had to cross to get to everywhere. It shows up in the food too. The old Eurasian staples of beans and sesame and lamb, cheese and spices; the New World guests, eggplant and tomato and potatoes, so deeply melded into the dishes you could never tell they were relative newcomers.
The menu, in turn, has elements from all over – dishes that are recognisably ‘Greek’, or perhaps ‘Lebanese’ or ‘Iranian’, though they’re really from all over, a common legacy to dramatically different countries. Mixing has always been the way of the region. The two chums, however, have never tried this before, and so we start off easy with the hot mezze platter.
The falafels show a good contrast between the hard shell and the crunchy broad beans within; kibbeh, spiced and minced lamb in a deep-fried teardrop-shaped shell, is excellent on texture, though the lamb is rather underpowered. But the standout is the spinach borek, its crisp skin opening to a slightly sweet spinach filling, with the slightly sweet, tangy hint of sumac and pine nuts.
Moussaka is served in its Greek-Turkish incarnation (the original Arabic name means ‘chilled’), a hot dish of eggplants and ground lamb bathed in tomato sauce, though here too there are surprises – the mealy texture of beans adding to the sauce’s thickness, and chunks of potato for substance along with the eggplants.
The bazalleh stew is a mix of textures, the vegetables soft, beef firm and yet suffused with broth. The broth itself is gently spiced, centred around tomato and cilantro. But the vermicelli rice is a miss, the rice (or perhaps the vermicelli) overly salted, and the bits of noodles having gone a bit gnarly. Koshari it isn’t.
My favourite dish of the lot, though, is the joojeh kebab, proclaimed to be an Iranian dish. Chunks of chicken dyed and scented with saffron, smoky on the outside and tender within, served with spicy, lemony harissa and feta dips – powerful contrast, but excellent complements to the chicken. The portions are deceptively small for how filling they are, and for all this, the bill heads barely into the 3-digit range. I suspect that, to many of its patrons, Kazbar is more an outdoor bar than a Middle Eastern restaurant, but that seems a pity to me. No matter – I know where to get my fix in Singapore now. Kazbar 25 Church Street www.kazbar.com