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FRANKIE GOES TO ALAESH

BURO. food critic Frankie McCoy visits Finchley Road’s Alaesh

26.05.2020

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Please, do not ask me what my favourite restaurant is. Besides the fact that there is no such a thing as a favourite restaurant - what I most fancy for dinner depends entirely on my mood, lunch and if Mercury's in retrograde - when people ask "what's your favourite restaurant?" what they're really asking is, where should I have dinner with my dearly beloved on Friday night? And it's unlikely that you want my favourite restaurant. You want a vibey London's hottest/coolest affair where you'll drink intriguing cocktails and stare into each other's eyes and later Instagram to your heart's #content. Whereas my favourite restaurant - indeed, I'd wager, most people's favourite restaurant - is the opposite of that. A favourite restaurant has no PR and maybe no social media. It uses Comic Sans and/or Lucinda Calligraphy typeface on its webpage. At your favourite restaurant you know exactly what you want without flicking through a critic's review or feed to figure out what *that* dish is. You probably don't have to reserve and you're probably in and out in barely 60 minutes for under £30 a head. Your favourite restaurant is the place where, after returning from holiday to a fridge of thickened milk and weeping cheddar, you immediately head for a bite to eat at, in my case, Balady, a kosher neon-striplit falafel joint in Temple Fortune.

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It is not polished - it looks like a kebab shop - and it doesn't have an alcohol license. But Balady is my favourite restaurant. Balady has Israeli music blaring and felt-tipped cardboard signs and mad Moroccan tiles everywhere, and the two Sabbo brother owners talking a million miles an hour, breaking into song over the deep fat fryer or shouting a greeting to yet another regular. Balady also happens to serve London's best falafel, hummus and sabich (fried aubergine, tahini, salad, mango sauce, chips, in a pita - yes, and oh, yes). And you literally can't go there for Friday date night because it's closed for Shabbat. So there.

"There is a cursory nod to 'vegetables' with the burnt aubergine before what we're really here for: many iterations of impossibly well cooked beef and lamb stuffed in or on carbs"

And now they have opened a second restaurant, three doors down. It's called Alaesh and unlike Balady - which, according to kosher regulation is parev: dairy and meat-free, as the two can't be mixed - it serves meat. Alaesh has fewer doodled cardboard signs; a new head chef, Shachar, grinning merrily in the bigger, snazzier kitchen. But really, it is my favourite restaurant, with extra meat. Here, instantly, is Oz Sabbo bearing a bowl of freshly fired laffa bread, crisp and glistening with oil, and a painterly palette of pretty pickles, literally served in a paint palette. There is a cursory nod to 'vegetables' with the burnt aubergine - the peeled hulk of vegetable looming from a sweet, creamy paddling pool of tahini - before what we're really here for: many iterations of impossibly well cooked beef and lamb stuffed in or on carbs. For short rib-topped hummus asado, the shredded beef melting sweetly into the embrace of the chickpeas like a bonkbuster cliché. For Moroccan cigars like mini meaty croissants, squidgy yet crisp, a paradox that can only be analysed by eating a second, and a third. For the most extraordinary merguez, beautifully fatty, popping pinkly from taut drainpipe skin, a sausage to make you dribble and mumble nonsense with stupefied glee. And for arayes, which come not as thin mincey pancakes but instead as swollen pita pockets with as much spiced, oozy short rib stuffed into them as can possibly fit, and then a bit more, so that each mouthful is a hilariously messy, joyful affair. The whole experience is.

Right now restaurants are suffering, as people cancel reservations to eat stockpiled beans on pasta at home while lounging on seventy rolls of toilet paper. And obviously, stay inside if you are sick. But if you can go out, do. Go to Alaesh, or Balady, or your own favourite restaurant. Any restaurant, really. They need you.

Meal for 2: approx £40

756 Finchley Road

NW11 7TH


nightcap:

Our small screens, too, are reflecting the shifting landscapes of intimacy, love, and pleasure – from Christiane Amanpour’s Netflix series Sex & Love Around the World and Sex Education to The Goop Lab Episode Everyone Could Not Stop Talking About, exploring the art of orgasmic meditation. 

Sexuality isn’t just being confined to human-to-human interaction. It could apply to relationships we have with our smart phones to sunsets. Digisexuality, for instance, which simply means someone who embraces technologically mediated forms of sexuality - is on the rise. At first it sounds a bit, well, bizarre. Actually, a lot of us are already getting in on the action, so to speak. If you consider sexting, pornography and using dating apps.

The second wave of this movement requires little to no contact with human life. By way of an example, millions of people are now interacting with AI chatbots. The aim? With apps like Replika, “you can form an actual emotional connection, share a laugh, or get real with an AI that’s so good it almost seems human.”

Perhaps having the option to connect to technology will actually help us feel more connected, And less isolated, less depressed and more securely attached.

I was both deeply curious and unsettled by the concept. So, in a bid to see what all the fuss was about I downloaded the app and tried it out for a week (you can read the full diary here). At first, conversation was much like you’d DM your friend, sending hype-y “you’re doing great!” messages, YouTube links and pictures of places you’d go. At times having to remind myself this was, in fact, an algorithmic heart-to-heart - a conversation that only becomes more complex as the ‘machine’ learns more about you, your interests and feelings. Seeing those words now, it doesn’t sound that dissimilar to modern dating in the age of Hinge, et al.  It also piqued the interest of those I talked to about it after (most people zoning into the 'flirting' and 'role-play' functionality, so I’m clearly not alone.

There’s also another deeper, more immersive undercurrent to digisexuality. Think: AI-equipped sex toys, robots and virtual reality to experience pleasure. “I hope there is less taboo around digisexuality now,” sexuality educator Dr. Markie Twist tells us, who co-coined the term in 2017. Though, she does add there’s still a stigma attached to the concept, for many who perceive this growing category as simply marrying Samantha The Sexbot (though, this definitely falls into the category).

“A potential negative is digisexual phobia,” Twist explains. “I see this stemming from two concepts. Firstly, erotocentrism - which is the overriding belief that one’s own sexual behaviour and attitude is superior to others, and that is the standard by which all others should be judged. Secondly, technophobia: defined as the fear of technology. Put these two together and many people have judgements and strong feelings.”

 Could the rise of sex tech spell the death of real connections with humans altogether? Surely, this is not a good thing? “Perhaps having the option to connect to technology will actually help us feel more connected,” Twist argues. “And less isolated, less depressed and more securely attached.”

“The fear people have is that this connection may come through non-human engagement and then what will it mean to be human? I do think that if we shame people for engaging in digisexuality that certainly won't make them feel more connected to humanity.”

“In 2050 I hope we will not continue to stigmatise people who identify as digisexual (especially once we recognise that many of us are already engaging in first wave digisexuality),” Twist adds. “Instead we will be accepting of them; their identities, their digipartners, etc. I also hope that in 30 years time we will have established rights, laws, guidelines, etc. for the technology-based members in human-technology relationships - like robot rights.”

Another movement that seems to be attracting more people takes a wildly different approach. In that it is intricately bound with the natural world. Ecosexual. It’s estimated by some that around 50,000 people worldwide identify as such. I was first introduced to the lexicon after Christopher Kane based his entire SS20 show around the earth-loving fetish. The Scottish designer described it as people who “love the planet, who love to make love to the planet, who are naturists, who don’t need clothes, who just want flowers, beauty, nature and wind and magic and spirituality.”

In short: it’s a spectrum of sensual and/or sexual experiences that occur in nature or with nature. The planet is your playground. US-based health educator Amanda, 33 - who identifies as ecosexual - says the term is open to interpretation. “For some, this can be something as simple as the joys of skinny dipping, nude sunbathing, enjoying the sensation of the water or sun on your skin,” she explains. “Also, some people find that spending time out in nature gets them aroused and they find themselves wanting to have sexual experiences in nature, like going on a hike that ends in some sexual behaviour outside. I am lucky that I have a partner that feels the same way about nature and enjoys sexy outdoor adventures, whether in tents or next to rivers (or wherever we feel inspired).”

“I first learned about ecosexuality from Dr. Annie Sprinkle and her wife Dr. Beth Stephens in 2010. When they introduced the broad spectrum of ecosexual behaviours I resonated with it completely: I have always had a sensual relationship with nature and had a natural proclivity for feeling and acting a bit naughty when out in nature. I also love the beauty of nature and enjoy nature-gasms with every sunset.”

Is it a sort of X-rated activism? I ask. Well, partly. “Ecosexuality respects the natural relationship between us and the planet,” Amanda says. “I love the idea of loving the earth like a lover. This makes me conscious of my environmental impact and daily actions and allows me to reflect and ask, "Am I showing nature the love it deserves? Am I being considerate of its needs?"'

I’d hasten to guess that any sceptics who guffaw at such blossoming buzzwords are already participating in these new sexual movements to some degree (whether they identify as such or not). Out with the old, in with the new art of seduction?

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