The best restaurants have a story behind them and Imad’s Syrian Kitchen is all about the narrative. And a gripping one it is. Imad Alarnab was once (and continues to be!) a successful chef and restaurateur but in Damascus, where he ran three restaurants alongside cafés and juice bars. All that was destroyed in just 6 days during the Syrian war and in 2015, he left alone to find a better life for his family. Making his way to Calais, once there by night he slept on the steps of a church and by day, he cooked for his fellow refugees – up to 400 at a time, for about 64 days.
Eventually, Imad made it to London, where he was given asylum and was able to send for his family, who were able to join him. After some temporary jobs, he then returned to his true calling – food. Like all those starting out in this sector, initially he ran supper clubs and pop-up restaurants, including a very successful falafel bar in Soho. Thanks to crowd-funding, Imad has thankfully now opened his own restaurant (or Kitchen!) in Kingly Court, on the site of what was previously Darjeeling Express – another real food story. So touching is his story that I felt absolutely start-struck when I saw Imad himself behind the pass…
Though due to open last December, Covid delayed that until June this year. But the wait has been totally worth it. A mission to find (tucked away on the top floor of Kingly Court), once located you feel like you’re a million miles from this otherwise buzzy and well-haunted food courtyard. Bright, cheery and alive, the setting feels warm and inviting: think a white-walled, floorboarded room; blue windowsills; blue tiles; a beamed ceiling; photographs of Damascus. You have the sense of being tucked in an old-style eating house, away from the chaos of the world and Imad’s past.
The menu, with street-food prices and served at street-food speed (probably because of the back-to-back bookings this place attracts), is one made for sharing. No Levantine meal is complete without hummus so this had to be ordered (£5.50). Served with a rounded pitta and topped with chickpeas, tahini and sumac, the pitta exudes steam when torn open. Pillowy soft, warm and fresh, its gentle charred markings brings a gentle smokey finish that for me is the essence of good Levantine food. The creamy hummus, meanwhile, has a punchy finish. Topped with whole chickpeas, micro greens, a drizzle of olive oil and ruby lashings of sumac, it feels totally alive.
The sesame seed-studded falafel (£6) – another essential to Middle Eastern mezze – are not shaped as the usual balls, but in small Syrian-style donughts with a hole in the middle. The result? More surface area crunch to spiced interior. That crunchy finish is certainly the USP of these falafel. Alongside the ruby red pickled onions with which they are topped and the puddle of tahini beneath, it’s a match made in heaven.
Probably the star of our lunch, though, was the baba ghanoj (£7). A twist on this classic aubergine dip, Imad’s take features the smoky aubergine purée stuffed within a whole aubergine. Topped with pomegranate seeds and more dribbles of tahini, it tastes as beautiful as it looks – melting down to the teeth and sitting there, as it should.
Though the food is enough to bring you here, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen is a reminder to ask questions about the stories behind the restaurants we eat in. About its owners, its chefs, the people bringing the experience together. Many more cafes and restaurants likely have a narrative, which can be easy to forget when you’re busy eating, especially when the food is this good.
Imad’s Syrian Kitchen, Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby St, London W1B 5PW