Middle Eastern small plates are my favourite: with fragrant spicing and Ottolenghian-inspired ingredients, sharing fantastically prepared Levantine mezze is always great fun. With its fashionable buzz and lively energy, Arabica joins the wave of new Middle Eastern eateries offering such a spread. Having had a successful stall in Borough Market and other food markets for the past 15 years, Arabica has opened a permanent restaurant. And with its attentive and welcoming service, there’s no need to “yalla yalla” (hurry up) here as at the market. Arabica is buzzy, great value, and delicious. You sit at the bar/kitchen counter, or a window seat, or one of the small tables; enjoy a casual and chatty atmosphere; and eat fantastic little tapas dishes brought to you by competent and friendly staff. Small and perfectly formed, it’s my kind of restaurant.
Arabica retains something of its market charm. Sitting underneath an impressive railway arch, it has an industrial quality. The combination of the interior’s bare brick walls, wide mirrors, steel finishings and low and atmospheric lighting typifies Bermondsey chic. Yet in many ways, Arabica seeks to recapture a past golden age. A French map from the 1960s on the wall displays “Asie Occidentale” with Levantine countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, highlighted in yellow. This was a period when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East – a playground for the rich and cosmopolitan. It feels as though it’s this moment in history that Arabica is trying to recapture.
For an intimate experience, opt to sit in a booth. If you sit at the polished concrete bar, as we did, however, you can enjoy a fantastic view of the kitchen at work: flatbreads are pulled from the searing-hot clay oven whilst mezze dishes are artfully assembled.
The vast menu reads like a dream, featuring everything from Levantine favourites including tabbouleh, fattoush, kibbeh and falafel, alongside more unusual options. The choices are portioned off into manageable chunks: dips, raw/cured, fried, clay oven, stove/grill/charcoal, salads and veg/rice/pulses. From this selection, my companion and I shared the Wild Mushroom and Truffle Man’ousheh (£7). This is a Turkish flatbread topped with mascarpone, sautéed wild mushrooms, haloumi, rocket and drizzled with indulgent white truffle oil, as well as the Tabouleh (£5.50) of parsley, cucumber, tomato, spring onion, mint, cracked wheat, olive oil and lemon. The flatbread was one of the best I’ve sampled, with a generous amount of wild mushrooms cooked to perfection. The woody flavours of the ‘shrooms sung through. The truffle, meanwhile, was rich and lifted the earthy flavour of the mushrooms. The pair of cheeses complemented the other flavours wonderfully and the combination melted in my mouth.
The tabouleh, meanwhile, was refreshingly zingy and provided a light accompaniment to the grilled pizzas.
Whilst I couldn’t manage desert, my companion enjoyed a scoop of Pistachio Ice Cream (£3) which I’m told had a genuine pistachio depth, as indicated by its brown colour.
Although portions are small and considering their price, ordering mezze to share can leave you with a hefty bill, Arabica is worth a visit. It undoubtedly adds to the foodie mecca that is Borough, which I never quite feel I’m using to its full delicious capacity. I wander into the market, get blindsided by 18 varying hues of heritage carrots, taste eight different types of honey, try all varieties of Mini Magoo’s “Fun Stuff” , treat myself to samples of all the cacao beans on offer at Rabot Estate and leave in a fluster. My aim for Borough now, however, is to not get sidetracked by all the testers on offer, but to enjoy a substantial meal here. And for this, Arabica is a go-to-destination.
Arabica Bar and Kitchen, 3 Rochester Walk, Borough Market, SE1 9AF