3 August 2020 was probably the first day when most of the country stood behind the government, or at least Rishi Sunak – Covid’s answer to Santa. The date marked the launch of the nationwide August “Eat Out To Help Out” campaign. In spite of its slightly cringe-worthy collective name, the initiative is an outstanding measure of government support for the hospitality industry: under the scheme, customers eating in at participating (and still surviving) businesses receive a 50 per cent discount, subject to any further lockdown restrictions imposed…There’s only a few catches: the offer runs from Monday to Wednesday only (many independents are closed on Mondays), alcohol is excluded (fair enough) and the discount runs to a maximum amount of £10 per person.
Some restaurants – mostly small, newly launched ones – have launched set menus at fixed prices in order to boost revenue and understandably make up for (a considerable amount of) lost time. One such restaurant is Bubala, which is running its “Bubala Knows Best” set menu at £32.50 per person, pre discount on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – so working out at £22.50 thanks to the government. That’s still a steal when you consider how many plates you’re getting (roughly 10), including a dedicated vegan selection. Finally braving public transport, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to eat out again and finally try out Bubala’s small plates. And another tip from me on cost-cutting whilst eating out: Bubala are also registered as part of Amex’s “shop small” scheme, meaning that if you pay by Amex (spending £10 or more) and have that offer saved to your card, Amex will credit £5 to your account!
“Bubala” means sweetheart or darling in Yiddish and this place is probably the bubala of my heart – likely given the inspiration behind its menu. Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe, though the all vegetarian menu at Bubala takes cues from the Levant, the far eastern Mediterranean and Spain. Running the front of house is Marc Summers, the ex-GM at Berber & Q, while the kitchen is headed up by chef Helen Graham, the brains behind the Middle Eastern kitchens of The Palomar, The Barbary and The Good Egg – all resounding success stories.
After testing the waters with sell-out pop ups and supper clubs, Bubala found its permanent home on Commercial Street in Spitalfields last summer 2019. For businesses that had opened so recently, lockdown imposed unprecedented challenges. With heavy hearts, Bubala shut its doors back in March. Though they adapted to delivery and takeaway services and held live-cook-alongs thanks to Zoom, those kinds of steps are by no means sustainable for small businesses. With the wave of reopenings seen since Super Saturday (4 July) combined with the government’s campaign, supporting the hospitality industry in these difficult times should be a no-brainer – particularly those restaurants nearby the City which are likely suffering from the dearth of officeworkers in the area at the moment, on whom I imagine they’re very reliant on trade.
Whilst they’ve had to reduce table numbers and install transparent shields between tables, these Covid measures don’t distract from the beautiful interiors in Bubala’s small space, not least the rustic peach plastered walls and sweeps of aqua across the ceiling. The bar counter is topped with a quirky terrazzo made with twinkling foil sweet wrappers. Behind is a swathe of forest green tiling and a bar that looks almost as good as it tastes – a handpicked selection of unusual wines (red, white, pink and orange) and brass taps for still and sparkling water.
The all-veggie food here is heavenly and seeing a vegan set menu (designed for two to share) with so many (tempting) options is a first. The well-marinated, sharp Pickles (a selection which we decided were onions, rhubarb, courgette and something else green) arrived first, closely followed by the wonderfully elastic, charred Laffa bread, and dips that are oh-so necessary to enjoy them alongside: Hummus, chilli oil and pinenuts, and Beetroot borani, pomegranate molasses and dill.
Their take on hummus, whipped up with tahini, arrives with an indentation filled with fiery red chilli-infused olive oil, chickpeas, toasted pine nuts and roughly chopped parsley. It’s smooth and irresistible. Although the veggies of the later plates are standalone dishes, each accompanied by their own bespoke dip / sauce, I found myself returning to the hummus throughout the evening to scoop up every last bit. Mezze is all about the dips of course!
Next up were probably the stars (or bubalas) of my evening: the still-warm incredibly herby Falafel with a puddle of whipped tahini and crimson strands of pickled onion; and Fried aubergine, zhoug and date syrup.
The aubergine, cut into thick discs, are fried – until silk soft – and then long-roasted until the skins are almost crisp and chewy. They’re then dressed with heaps of a sharp coriander relish called zhoug and a seductively delicious date syrup. It’s clear that each and every dish here has been prepared, very visibly, with love (and in the aubergine’s case, a date drizzle).
Though we were already full from the dips, the “mains” then arrived, including the completely blackened Grilled leek with amba, confit tomatoes and preserved lime pangratto. With its incredibly smokey flavour, this dish was another evening favourite of mine, also thanks to the delicious tahini beneath which the leeks were sitting. The lime crumb added a delightful touch of mess to the dish which I wiped clean.
The Smashed Cornish mids potatoes (smashed potatoes are are lockdown cooking discovery for me) were served with spring onions and sat above a pool of moreish oil which had all the fire of harissa – the cooking here is fierce. In comparison, the salad of fennel-like Kohlrabi, snow peas, pumpkin seed pesto and sun-dried tomatoes felt like a breath of fresh air. The thinly shaved pieces of kohlarabi were delicate and combined with fresh peas, the salad provided mouthfuls of light relief – a welcome break from the grilled, roasted, burnt and smokey finishes of the other plates.
Although I thought they’d been forgotten, the skewers of Oyster mushroom arrived eventually. Whilst I’m a fan of tamari (a gluten-free soya sauce) I think the dousing here was a touch on the heavy side. Nevertheless, its preparation represents everything I love about (good) Levantine food: it’s smack bang full of flavour and certainly not on the shy side, not least at Bubala.
The deserts were (thankfully) light and palette cleansing: a (vegan) Coconut Melabi with hibiscus and a sesame brittle was layered with all manners of flavours – I kept returning to the dish for another spoon of contrasting textures, temperatures and flavours; and the Tahini, date and tangerine ice cream was as every bit gorgeous as the description sounds.
Bubala is totally deserving of its name, its hype, and its bookings – dinner slots for August (at least Monday – Wednesday!) seem to be full. A long lunch here (a la carte) would also be a real treat – I urge you to eat out to help Bubala out.
Bubala, 65 Commercial St, Spitalfields, London E1 6BD