For my Last Supper with a few colleagues, I picked out Shawarma Bar sitting smack back in the middle of Exmouth Market. I’d been meaning to dip into this cosy little spot – and a plate or two of its mezze – for some time. Following the well-trodden path of dead-end job, to street truck, to shop proper, Berber & Q’s Shawarma Bar opened in July 2016, specialising in rotisserie Middle Eastern meats slow-cooked over charcoal and wood. But their story isn’t one of meats alone. The vegetables here – chargrilled to perfection – were the stars of the show for me.
Dropped neatly into the middle of Exmouth Market, the restaurant itself sticks with the rough, unfinished-chic veneer of the B&Q original haunt in Haggerston, with rusted Middle Eastern street signs on the walls, distressed wooden tables, Moroccan tiles lining the floors, and huge bi-fold windows looking out on to the market. Whilst we sat at a table for four near the door – having moved from the dim-lit hareem-like back-room where there was a very noisy office Christmas lunch going on – we sat besides the bar counter. If there’s two of you, definitely sit at the bar in front of the open kitchen: it’s here that the shawarma action is happening and you can watch the pillowy cushions of pitta being pulled out the grill – sometimes so blackened that the fire alarm goes off!
Inspired by the foods of the streets and cafes of Tel Aviv, the menu is split into six sections: nibbles, mezze, hummus, rice/pita bowls, meats, and sides. The variety and quality of their vegetable offerings is impressive. To share, we enjoyed Jaffa olives (£3.50), Aubergine, crispy capers, chilli and feta (£5) and Muhammara with spring onions, pomegranate molasses and walnuts (£5). The aubergine was blackened, roasted and split and filled with garlicky feta and fronds of green. For me, chargrilled aubergine definitely beats any babaganoush. The muhammara was a richly red dip of roasted peppers and walnuts; it was an ideal marriage of sweetness and tanginess and a good accompaniment to the aubergine.
No mention of the mezze can ignore the spectacularly good pitta and challah bread that came with, presented in brown paper bags which pouted gusts of steam. Pulling them out to rip open their soft pockets, you feel like you’re ordering food from a market stall. For my colleagues, these fresh bakes provided the perfect spoons to whip up the various dips, including the fiery harissa paste which wasn’t too punchy but lent a nice gentle burn to each of the dishes.
For mains, I took the Rice bowl (£12) of Cauliflower shawarma, mejadreah (turmeric rice with lentils), fried onions and tahini. The roasted cauliflower vibrated with deliciousness under its dressing of salt and cumin, pomegranate and rose. The serving of rice was very generous and for a lighter/less carby lunch, it might be a better idea to just order the chargrilled cauliflower as a side.
Probably the most appealing thing on the menu for me was the Hummus. You may think hummus is just that – hummus – but it comes in many different guises. Today, for instance, we enjoyed it with chargrilled broccoli and streaks of shocking pick beetroot. This is hummus less as side dish than the main event and their hummus is testament to just how vital and vibrant this Levantine staple can be when made by someone who both knows and cares what they’re doing.
The foods at Shawarma Bar offers a virtuous interplay of smoke, cumin and paprika, of sugar syrups and rose and pomegrante, and vegetables grilled to perfection. The hummus alone – screaming bash and enthusiasm – makes it worth a visit. And if you want a wake-up call proper after non-stop mezze grazing, order a Turkish coffee martini. Strong it was! Like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, the notes of cardamom finished off things very nicely.
Shwarma Bar, 46 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4QE