Bubala Soho, London W1: ‘Lunch doesn’t always need to have once had a face to be fabulous’ – restaurant review | Grace Dent on restaurants
The new Bubala in Soho has a menu so deliciously worded and branding so smoothly positioned that my lunch guest was for some time quite unaware she was in a meat-free restaurant. She loves modern Middle Eastern food, and was well into the idea of fancy hummus, braised hispi cabbage and charred oyster mushrooms on skewers. It was only after the third time she attempted to add “perhaps a chicken dish” to our order that the penny finally dropped. “There is no chicken,” I revealed. Sometimes, when springing vegetarian food on friends, my tactic is subterfuge: softly, softly I shall lure you into my world of silken tofu and seitan-worship. Lunch doesn’t always need to have once had a face to be fabulous.
Thankfully, at Bubala, you can pacify a carnivore with the corn ribs, sticky with black garlic pilpelchuma, and warm challah to drag greedily through bowls of baba ganoush made glossy with curry leaf oil and pine nuts. Bubala Soho is this outfit’s second incarnation, after Helen Graham and Marc Summers made a successful start in Spitalfields some three years ago, when I heard only good things about this all-day, plant-based, rather elegant spot that’s clearly influenced by the likes of Ottolenghi and Moro.
I did wonder whether the pandemic might finish such places off, leaving only the financially cushioned big beasts thriving. Hell, no: Bubala has taken its sumptuous chunks of halloumi smothered in camomile and honey and its confit potato latkes to Soho. It’s just a totter along from the delightful new Firebird that I recently wrote about favourably, and it’s not far from Dai Chi, the kushiage place that fed me in April. Soho is an unfathomable entity right now: rents and business rates are extortionate, commuters show their face only three days a week, if that, and retail openings seem to be made up entirely of American Candy Stores, yet in W1 restaurants are still opening at lightning pace.
On a Friday lunchtime, the new Bubala is thriving with both groups of friends and business meetings. Service is that type of warm that makes you want to stay and hang out with the gang afterwards, because they seem to be having such a good laugh, and besides, they’ve got air-con, which, on a day that reached 40C in London, was joyful. On scanning menu of dishes such as “maitake mushroom & baharat butter, barberry jam” and “grapefruit ezme, tahini, pomegranate molasses”, it’s clearly rather common to feel a bit bamboozled by choice. This is where the restaurant’s “Bubala Knows Best” feasting menu is an absolute boon. I railed against going down this route two or three times, asking the server for just five more minutes to make up my mind, until finally I caved in, said “Feed me”, and the floodgates opened.
There were bowls of smooth and luxurious hummus finished with burnt butter and served with laffa flatbread for dipping, and of pale, creamy labneh dotted with aromatic garlic and a liberal amount of za’atar. Dishes as glossy and luxuriantly finished as Chris Pine’s new hair; there are no dry bites here. Humble cornish mids potatoes, for example, come with silken tofu and smoked harrisa salsa, and we stirred them into vesuvio tomatoes, mango, tamarind and cumin. Yes, you could make these things at home, but it would take all day and 17 different bowls, and you’d be sponging hummus off the ceiling for days after an accident with the Magimix.
Bubala, you see, really does know best. They knew I needed the roast cauliflower with bkeila, tomato and slightly sweet yoghurt, and the braised hispi with seaweed that has a citrus burst of dried orange and an undertone of sesame. The latkes are like the delightful, deep-fried concertina’d spuds you get at the Quality Chop House and on the fanciest Sunday roasts, though here they’re served with a puddle of toum, AKA Lebanese garlic sauce. There were also grilled skewers of soft leek with amba, as well as an unusual Chinese cabbage with preserved lime and cardamom.
A bottle of blanc de blancs will set you back £40, but a glass of the house white, Agredo Bianco, is £6, while non-drinkers will love the “gazoz”, or homemade sodas; I found the blueberry, jasmine, rosemary and thyme number to be entirely complementary to eating far too much challah.
Desserts, if you get that far, are simple, wholesome and homespun: there was date and tahini ice-cream, and coconut fudge, and we lingered over a rice flour-based coconut malabi pudding with hibiscus and sesame brittle before accepting that they possibly needed our table back.
As we left, my guest thanked me for choosing Bubala, and didn’t even quibble over the lack of chicken, prime rib or langoustine. When luring friends over to the dark side of titivated cabbage, things don’t get any better than that.
• None Bubala Soho 15 Poland Street, London W1, [email protected] (no phone), Open Mon-Sat, lunch noon-3pm, dinner 5.30-11pm. About £40 a head, plus drinks and service.