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.
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.
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
Nightcap: this stretch of Finchley Road is not renowned for its bars. Spare your liver and nab a square of Bread Bakery's ludicrously squidgy chocolate rugelach instead.