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Frankie Goes To Bubala

BURO. food critic Frankie McCoy visits Middle-Eastern restaurant Bubala in London's Spitalfields

05.03.2020

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Ah, my darling, my angel, my bubala! Bubala is a Yiddish endearment, the kind of cheek-squeezing, hair-ruffling, sloppy kiss-smothering pet name a grandmother presses on a squirming child before plying them with triple helpings of chicken soup. It's a word filled with schmaltzy warmth and sweetness and imminent calories.

Now it’s also a restaurant in Spitalfields, one serving new-wave Jewish food: the Sephardi rainbow of tahini-splattered and pomegranate-scattered vegetable-centric dishes – a cuisine that was brought to the London masses by Ottolenghi and is now preached across town at the likes of The Palomar and The Barbary, Berber and Q, and The Good Egg. The Bubala team – head chef Helen and general manager Marc – have between them worked at all four of these temples to wood-fired cauliflower and aubergine, and worked out that with this kind of food you don't actually need meat at all. You don’t need to mention your meat-free mission either – just make your veg so tasty your customers either don’t notice or don’t care.

Pumpkin Tirshy, Feta, Preserved Lemon & Harissa

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And Bubala really is ever so darling, with its faded plaster walls the colour of Neapolitan ice cream, its handful of tables and clutch of stools at the emerald tiled bar all crammed with happy people, its terribly jolly staff. Freshly-fired laffa arrives, all juice-soppingly spongy and huge for two quid. You’ll tear it apart like a vegetarian wolf, shovelling on grapefruit ezme (a glinting citrussy salsa, full of sweet ’n’ sour zing) and labneh, and Bubala's very good hummus, which comes in a puddle of sweet brown butter, tasting oddly like salted caramel.

"Bubala is a big squidgy cuddle of a restaurant, the sort you once childishly hid from"

Then there’s burnished nuggets of falafel with their sparkling green innards and ful medames – a bowl of cosy bean sludge that’s swirled with yoghurt and heralded by two shards of truly heroic nigella-flecked Yemeni flatbread. Grilled cabbage wallows in a beige tahini sauce and has a face only a grandmother could love. But as with much greige food, it’s more delicious than many a tarted-up counterpart. A side of confit potato latkes? Unnecessary, but also, obviously, totally necessary. They’re not really latkes, they are just confit potatoes. But just confit potatoes (thinly sliced tubers, layered in duck fat and deep-fried and salted to cubes of golden wonder) are just perfect.

Labneh, Orange Salsa, Togarashi, candied orange

All this comes quickly and generously so now you’re full to bursting. But Bubala won’t let you leave without just a teeny taste of pudding: a delightful tahini, date and tangerine ice cream, more cutely homespun than slick gelato with a nostalgic whiff of Turkish delight, and lushly dark salted-caramel truffles flecked with a potpourri of rose petals.

Now you can go, but only if you promise to come back and visit soon. Which you will, this time, honest. Because Bubala is a big squidgy cuddle of a restaurant, the sort you once childishly hid from – but which you now fall into with open, hungry arms. Bubala.co.uk

Total for two, with drinks: £80

65 Commercial Street, E1 6BD


Nightcap

Two fat ladies? Not even one: customers at Snackbar are either skinny boys with Airpods and too-short trousers chopsticking tempura shiitake from rice bowls, or women with blunt fringes gathered around MacBooks planning no-waste supper clubs and conscious curry nights. Or quite possibly another new urban farm cafe where women with blunt fringes will sit and plan urban farm cafes… So yes, this is the kind of place that red-faced tabloid columnists jeer at: the very definition of a freelancing millennial snowflake caff. And it’s brilliant.

It helps that there are serious food buffs behind the kimcheese croissant-strewn counter: Freddie Janssen, the pickle queen behind all the ferments, and chef Anaïs van Manen (ex-Nuala and Trullo). Their menu changes regularly depending on what’s in season (obvs) but as a rule, there are variations on flatbreads and salads and rice bowls. The ‘Snack’ in the name is deceptive: these aren’t feeble titbit small plates but bulky fodder to power you through an afternoon of logo designing for your zero juice-pulp granola line.

The Caesar salad, for example, comes with both exemplary bronzed sourdough croutons, thick shards of roast chicken skin and a silly-generous amount of chicken for £8. Snackbar’s polytunnel isn’t up and running yet so salad leaves come from another urban farm, Hackney’s Growing Communities. They are bewitching: a riot of fronds and stalks and tendrils in a veritable Farrow & Ball colour chart of greens, each with its own distinct flavour. Heftier still is the goat rendang flatbread. Goat can feel a bit worthy – ever so lean, ever so sustainable! – but here it’s saved from sanctimony by being slow-cooked lushly in spice and draped in sambal butter. Most people have rice bowls, which can be eaten with chopsticks leaving one hand free for scrolling: delightfully squidgy tempura mushrooms, kimchi and a wobbling egg yolk on a heap of Ambrosia sticky white rice. There’s no alcohol license, so it’s locally made soft drinks and their own fig leaf soda – as gentle and innocent as the flaxen haired toddler sipping Pump Street hot chocolate in a high chair – instead.

Nobody tries to chivvy you out when you’ve finished eating, you’re left to your own electronic devices as long as you want. As I tap on my laptop two hours later, the bearded man next to me takes a call from a friend who’s been arrested at the Extinction Rebellion protest. Course he has. Snackbar, with its hipster cool take on sustainability and crowdsourcing, is practically designed to make dinosaurs sneer. But it’s the very delicious future, and it deserves a full house. snackbarlondon.com

Total for two, with drinks: £25

20 Dalston Lane, E8 3AZ


Nightcap

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