You tend to make your mind up about a restaurant before you've even sat down. I mean, you've obviously made your mind up before that. I, for instance, chose Barboun to meet my friends Nick and Paula for a long overdue Saturday night dinner because I'd decided Barboun was cool: a slick new East Mediterranean restaurant in the middle of Shoreditch from Hus Vedat, whose Yosma in Marylebone I loved. Barboun sparkles from many a hot new openings list; its food glows from the grid of influencers galore. Where could be more ideal to share loads of great food and great wine with old pals?
Except I'm not sure I’ve ever been in a restaurant as depressing as Barboun at 7.30pm on a Saturday night. It’s a huge, unlovely room, the bland pampered beige of a Eurotrash hotel lobby; the sort of place where both customers and hostesses wear backless bodycon and the entire Harrods makeup counter. There are over 100 covers, and at the most popular time of the week to eat out there were… four (4) people seated at two (2) tables. Deep house musak rumbled like it was 2pm at a third-rate Ibiza beach bar.
I wandered sadly to the loo, and past two meeting rooms and a gym. Barboun, it transpires, actually is a hotel lobby, or at least leads off one, in the Hart Hotel - part of the ‘Curio Collection by Hilton’ chain, complete with DJ and cocktail bar in the actual lobby at weekends. I’d made my mind up. Barboun was awful. Irredeemable.
And yet… redemption came. It started with the wine: the first of many biodynamic/natural/interesting stuff available by the glass, unexpected in this pseudo-boutique wannabe-Nobu. And then food began arriving, and I was forced to smother my disparaging words in the intense bottarga-topped taramasalata, and eat them. Because the cooking at Barboun is really good, and some dishes are even excellent. Like the beetroot fritters, jellyish with beetroot flesh and dusted with bright pink beetroot powder, like Turkish delight, in a pool of feta cream - the hackneyed combination of flavours gleefully reinvented. Dolma are wonderful, lavishly leafy parcels of bulgar wheat studded with sour cherries, the whole smothered in sun-dried tomato.
Nick is vegetarian and I’m suffering existential angst about climate change and the amount of methane-parping animal that I shovel in my gob. Aren’t we all. So we bypass octopus and short rib and baby chicken for roots and shoots: sculptural wedges of fleshy celeriac with a delicious rubble of smoked almonds and parsley, on extraordinary begendi: basically baba ganoush, but whipped with butter, milk and roasted flour to divine creamy, smoky mush, the baby food of the gods. Pretty hunks of beautifully roasted Delica pumpkin are spoiled by a musty sauce described as green tahini, but tasting more like the back of your larder, a damp dust of indistinguishable dusty herbs. Kunefe for pudding is good, crispy and not-too-sweet, with extra syrup on the side for pour on the shredded wheat and cream cheese.
Is Barboun perfect? Absolutely not. But it is good, and it deserves to be busier on a Saturday night. So do all London’s restaurants. They need you. Get out there and dig in.
Barboun 61-67 Great Eastern Street
For every two (2) delightful tempura oysters consumed at Angela Hartnett’s Merchant’s Tavern, I would recommend one (1) thyme and sherry-spiked gimlet. Repeat every twenty minutes as required.