The Tabun Kitchen in the heart of Soho isn’t a big restaurant by any means. Around a dozen tables are nestled in the L shaped restaurant on Berwick street, which describes itself as serving a “modern slant” on “delicious, ancient,” Palestinian cuisine. The layout – mostly two-seater tables – means that you’re never super aware of its smaller size. In fact there are more or less only two viewing options for diners: the bar, or your date (or in my case, mother). The lighting was fresh and bright towards the front where we sat while the back of the restaurant was a little more romantic. Mum was particularly impressed by the candles, suggesting that they’d look pretty nice in her bathroom – a sentiment that I’m happy to back up. They were really nice candles.
The menu consists of “Jerusalem street food”: Meze dishes, chicken and rice, lamb and grilled meats. Pizza is also available, but it didn’t feel right coming all the way to Palestine (via Tottenham Court Road station) to go Italian, so we kept things are Arabic as possible. Although I learned later that the Pizzas, called “Manaeesh” did have a solid Middle Eastern history, which would have been worth noting on the menu. The staff were friendly and happy to talk us through each dish we asked about, which as newbies to this sort of food, was welcomed.
Starters consisted of Falafel, which were delicious on their own but perfect for scooping up huge amounts of roughly crushed hoummus and Labneh (a tasty middle ground between Greek yoghurt and cream cheese), both of which were delicately flavoured and a world away from the rubbish you buy from Tesco to dip cucumber batons into, which I’m ashamed to admit is my only real experience with Middle Eastern food. They came with dollops of aubergine salad which had just a little kick to them, but nothing challenging, even to the wimpiest of korma fans. The grilled halloumi, which is often little more than a rubbery vehicle for salt, was a highlight.
You really need three dishes from the meze each to keep you going until your main course, as the service is focused on letting you get on with socialising, rather than filling you up as quickly as possible. There are two couscous dishes available, but eating something super filling like that for a starter always feels like sabotaging your dessert ambitions. At around £5 per dish you’re looking at £10-15 a head for starters. A little pricey, but they were an excellent way to kick of a night of proper Palestinian food.
We’d both decided we wouldn’t be having lamb so we went for white wine. There’s a lot of yoghurt and chick peaks going on in the starters, so the crisp sauvignon blanc helped keep things light. The staff filled our first glass, but left us to do the rest (which I was grateful for – I hate intense service).
Mum won on the main course. Her Musakhan Chicken – shredded marinated chicken with caramlised onions and flatbread with a side of yoghurt and mint dip – was beautiful. The chicken was tender and smokey and the flatbread, which was crispy-fried, was unbelievably moreish. Well worth the very reasonable £14 price tag.
I’d recommend my dish, the Fatet Jaj Chicken (shredded roasted chicken with rice, hummus sauce and pine nuts) to someone who had to really pluck up the courage to try food from a different culture. It was nice, and it was filling. But it was a little pedestrian. But it was the anomaly in the meal, and even then it wasn’t as if it tasted bad. It just didn’t quite transport you in the way the Musakhan Chicken did.
To finish, we shared a Harissa (no it’s not what you think) cake and something called a Muhalabia, which was a milky, pudding-like textured dessert topped with crushed pistachios. The waiter told us that it had been a love it or hate it dish for most of their customers, but I think it’s more accurate to say that you had to really think about enjoying it. It sounds odd, but I reconised the orange-blossom, which is used to flavour it, as a perfume more than a flavour. So it was a little confusing, but I recommend trying it and sticking with it, because it is very tasty. The Harissa Cake was proper comfort food, moist and sweet and instantly delicious. If it wasn’t already pushing 10pm it would have gone nicely with a strong coffee.
Tabun Kitchen seems like a good place to start with Palestinian food. The flavours are comforting and homey but refined, and the sharing element of the meze means you can talk through your anxieties with your dining partner if you’re the sort that gets nervous about trying new things (we weren’t particularly). The starters and desserts were the most interesting parts; the main felt like it was there to fill your tummy rather than excite your palette. But I’d come again and try something else for sure, based on the strength of everything else we tried.
For more information visit tabunkitchen.com