As the sibling of Palomar – an offshoot of one of Israel’s trendiest restaurants Machneyuda – the Barbary has long been on my restaurant “to-go-to” list. So when faced with the task of picking the dining spot for a Christmas dinner with my school friends, this place immediately sprung to mind. Indeed, it’s probably one of the biggest restaurant stories of 2016.
Like Palomar, it’s difficult to get a spot at the Barbary. It doesn’t take bookings. Tucked away in Neal’s Yard, that little pocket of London which is a foodie centre (with the Mae Deli pop-up, 26 Grains and Homeslice), architects Gundry & Ducker have dispensed with tables and affixed 24 bar stools to a zinc bar encircling a central open kitchen crammed with an open grill, clay oven and chefs and waiters jockeying for position.
The open kitchen is definitely a fun spectacle: half a dozen chefs cooking over a fiery grill and an astonishing clay oven peeking out of its steel furnace. In the background a soundtrack mixing Middle Eastern songs with thumping blues keep the momentum up. It’s loud, hot and slightly messy fun (they need to invest in proper napkins), carried along by lively music and conversation. Indeed, the whole kitchen did shots to mark a fellow diner’s birthday! At the same time, however, it’s a really intimate experience to eat here. The friendliness, eye-contact and sense of joint enterprise with the staff is very welcoming. The whole place is the chef’s table: you hardly have a choice but to see your food being made right there for you. It would be a great spot for a date, though less good for a group, since there simply are no tables.
The head chef here, completely committed to every dish he’s turning out, is Eyal Jagermann, former head sous chef at Palomar. The concept this time is food from the Barbary Coast, journeying along that piratical seaboard (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) towards Lebanon and Israel (for a placemat, they have a lovely sepia repro antique map of La Barbarie Afrique, complete with a Barbary lion).
In the mood for a snackistan, my friend went for the Jerusalem Bagel (£4) which was well adorned with sesame seeds and a tasty accompaniment to the Msabacha Chickpeas (£4.50). Next time, I’ll have to try the Naan e Barbari (£3.50), which looked pillowy soft. The bread here is made by slapping a piece of dough against the side of the clay oven with a muslin-covered pad and the result is light and flaky, not visually perfect, but sensationally tempting and a great foil for the dips.
Onto mains, vegetables have a starring role. All the “earth” menu options sounded like deliciously inspired Oklava-style Palestinian dishes from the food markets of Jerusalem. My Broccoli & Black Tahini (£7.50) was intensely herbed and spiced, and beautifully presented with strikingly black tahini. Although people say green is the new black, black is still pretty effective. The Fattoush Salad (£7.50) was also a fabulous thing: ruby, sweet tomatoes; clouds of whipped feta; crisp, heavily oiled croutons; and a sharp, seductive dressing humming with sumac. As I was still a tad peckish, I also ordered an Olesh (£7) which didn’t disappoint. Grilled chicory glazed with a date syrup, it was impactful and substantial, and a lovely savoury/sweet end to the meal. The food here has an earthy, herby bitterness to it that’s markedly different to the overall sweetness projected by Palomar, although tahini is everywhere.
In sum, The Barbary is an exhilarating experience at a modest cost (all the listed prices include service and they are serious about sticking to that, hoping this simplification will spread around London). It’s exciting to enjoy an evening at a restaurant with such passion behind it. If you have to queue, queue.
The Barbary, 16 Neal’s Yard, Seven Dials, WC2H