77 Berwick Street, W1F 8TH www.tabunkitchen.com
With the cooking of the Middle East such a thing right now, the reopening of Palestinian Tabun Kitchen comes at a perfect time.
There is something about the happy reliance on fresh herbs, vegetables, spices, fragrances and breads that seems to always produce dishes that instantly wow me. Across the region one finds similarities of cuisine, while at the same time little touches and adjustments that make each distinctive in its own way.
I’d never been to Tabun, a Palestinian restaurant, then it closed for refurbishment and enlargement. Now with the reopening it seemed as good a time as any to try it for lunch, especially as it’s just a short walk from our office.
We weren’t the only ones with the same idea, there was some light jostling at the door as people pushed eagerly into the small interior. Inside it’s light and bright, a mixture of Arab and European styles with functional tables and chairs (cushions add ambience and protect the coccyx) while the tabun, or taboon, oven sits s in pride of place by the bar.
In a traditional Palestinian house this over would be cone shaped, made of clay and fired by all kinds of fuel – dried animal dung, bird droppings, tree branches, tree trimmings or charcoal. Here in the heart of Soho it’s simply made of steel and fired only by gas, perhaps understandably as the only animal dung is all too often human in those streets.
From out its depths come the breads it’s named for, but of course it cooks other things too. I kick off with grilled halloumi because I just love grilled halloumi. This has split in half in the classic cloven hoof way and is drizzled with fine and peppery olive oil, but what makes it extra tasty is the black sesame seed and the semi-smashed, avocado underneath that’s bright with lemon juice. The combination of textures is perfect.
They are big livers; I didn’t know chickens had livers the size of Oliver Reed’s, but they are perfectly cooked, no trace of rubberiness or bitterness, and the sweet and tart mix of lemon and the molasses, plus the fragrance of the coriander work as they should. We share a few on flatbreads.
Tabun has a small menu but one close to the heart of its owner and founder who aims to keep it family home style. A big feature is a range of what I fear will be called Palestinian Pizzas, which is to say flatbreads (Manaeesh) with various toppings.
I have the lamb with pine nuts, pomegranate and chilli. The lamb mince is fine, quite tasty but not outstanding. It is however nicely dry and not greasy and the addition of the pomegranate and the drizzle of chili sauce enlivens it considerably. I still felt it needed more salt, though The bread was light and puffy although needed to be a bit more charred, but perhaps that is not how it’s done when done properly.
It was hard to decide how to eat it; although it was usefully pre-sliced it didn’t quite lend itself to using the hands as the lamb mince had a tendency to roll off when it went up to mouth-approach angle. Knife and fork didn’t feel right, in the end I went for a combination of techniques and then picked up all the fallen mince with my fingers.
For S it was the Lamb Makloubeh slow-cooked lamb, rice, aubergine and pine nuts (pine nuts feature a lot in Middle East cuisine). This came prettily, if perhaps not traditionally, plated with lamb heaped on a small edifice of rice. The aubergine came on the side and in the tower and with a big slice of beef tomato, which I always find rather tasteless, and some tzatziki.
S had the same issue as I did, namely that while perfectly okay, the lamb did not have all the spicing and flavours he expected. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I kind of think that I could make this at home myself,’ he said,’which I don’t suppose is quite what’homestyle’ cooking is supposed to mean?’
Of course we only had a taste (sic) of what’s on the menu and I’d like to try some more dishes before passing total judgement. We did in fact ask for a plate of pickles, as well as some tabbouleh, but these never appeared. The waiter did seem to be struggling with his iPad order system, so perhaps they went into cyberspace. It only goes to show that a pencil and a pad are still often the better technology.
Tabun also has what they say is London’s first modern Palestinian tasting menu, and that sounds interesting if one puts aside the now obligatory scepticism of’tasting menus”
Only I had dessert, which was delicious. Muhulabieh – rose scented milk pudding, crushed pistachios and orange blossom honey. So delicate and sweet without being sickly I could have cheerfully eaten a great big bowl of it.
Incidentally, do try the Taybeh Dark beer, which was a malty Palestinian take on a stout and they have some fun sounding cocktails too.
Clean and fresh and well-priced, Tabun has a lot going for it in the casual-ish dining league. From what we ate I’d say if they want the really rave reviews on Instagram they could safely up the seasoning and spicing though.