Reviewed by William Dobson
I’ve only recently been converted to tweeting. However, after being told about Abu Zaad, a Syrian restaurant in Shepherds Bush, by one of our many, many followers on twitter, I can safely say that it does indeed have its virtues. Syrian food is, for me, perhaps the most underrated cuisine in the world. Due to the huge Lebanese diaspora that permeates all corners of the globe – I was especially surprised once to experience firsthand the Lebanese monopoly on supermarkets in Accra, Ghana – Syria’s considerably smaller neighbour attracts far more headlines when it comes to all things epicurean. However, while there are inherent similarities between the food in the two countries, Syria also benefits from extensive Turkish influence. Indeed, Aleppo, which was for a long time an important city in the Ottoman Empire and is still located just over the border, has to be one of the great food cities of the world. Both Levantine and Turkish flavours are perfectly incorporated to elevate the cuisine to another level.
Abu Zaad is a fine reflection not just of Damascene food but of its culture as well. This continuously packed and very lively eatery is adorned with beautiful and traditional artwork depicting scenes from the Old City, which still remains a fascinating relic of a bygone era. Meanwhile Syrian pop songs blare out of the sound system and televisions are constantly tuned into football from around the region. The waiters are friendly, courteous, and eager to please – as you would expect from a Middle Eastern restaurant – and the service is quick and efficient – perhaps a slight letdown to its authenticity – while the food is simple, tasty and fresh. Moreover, it’s fantastic value.
One of the difficulties about reviewing Levantine restaurants is that they all tend to have very similar menus. There are only so many times you can say that the lamb ‘fell off the bone’ or ‘melted in the mouth’ (it did by the way). As such, living and eating out in Damascus became an exercise in learning which restaurants specialised in which dish. If one night you were in the mood for sha’af you would go to one particular restaurant and, if the next night you fancied some shish taouk, then you would go to another. Meanwhile, others would only be frequented during Ramadan, as their iftar menu was particularly appealing. Of course, if you wanted something completely different you could head to the Chinese, incongruously placed right in the heart of the Old City, a stone’s throw from the Mosque.
In the UK we’re not afforded this luxury but everything at Abu Zaad hit the mark. This isn’t food to take your breath away and you won’t find any Michelin stars blazoned on the window any time soon. But that’s not really the point, is it? A friend of mine told me recently that she didn’t really like the idea of ‘restaurant critics’. She suggested that too much time was concentrated on venues where the prices surpassed the financial constraints of the general population, especially in our recession hit era. It’s not a sentiment I would agree with and I wonder if it was perhaps borne out of some deep-seated mistrust of food writers – her mother runs a restaurant. There will always be a place for reviewers as restaurant going will continue to be one of life’s great pleasures. Now, even more than ever, people deserve to be warned if their hard earned cash isn’t going to be put to the best possible use. However, London remains one of the best places for cheap eating, certainly in the country if not the world, mainly on account of its vast ethnic diversity and this needs to be championed as well.
As such, it’s a real pleasure to find a gem like Abu Zaad, serving hearty and mouth-watering fare for little more than a Big Mac meal. Apart from the standard selection of mezze which were all lovely if nothing out of the ordinary, a couple of dishes will certainly elevate this restaurant above the competition. The bamia billahmia – an okra stew with lamb – was delightful, cooked in a rich and flavoursome tomato sauce with a hint of cumin and enhanced by that slightly odd but in no way unappealing texture that the okra lends. It also represented a different style from normal restaurant food, being a dish more associated with homecooking and all the more exciting for it. The waiter also recommended the macmour, which the menu described as ‘lamb barbecued in special way’. This ‘special way’ transpired to mean not actually barbecued at all but rather a shank, braised very slowly, so as to remain succulently moist and tender. Despite the somewhat disappointing accompaniments of bland and slightly soggy rice and overcooked new potatoes, the meat itself was wonderful. However, the standout dish was the mahalabia. Not usually one for desserts, I couldn’t resist, despite my already distended stomach, when I noticed this on the menu. A sweet milk based pudding, thickened with cornstarch and flavoured with rosewater before being topped with crunchy pistachios, it was absolutely lovely, a perfect way to end a thoroughly satisfying experience.
Visit Restaurant Website
Address: 29 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 8LH
Telephone: 0208 749 5107
Average Price Per Person: £10 - 20