Reviewed by William Dobson
Some cuisines lend themselves to fine dining, to the traditional Western idea of three courses, beautiful presentation and ever more complicated techniques. Levantine (I use this word to cover Syrian and Lebanese) cuisine isn’t one of these. It’s about eschewing your knife and fork and scooping up dips with pieces of freshly cooked, warm flat bread and it’s about grilled meats, delicately spiced which you can eat with a complete lack of pretension and etiquette. Ultimately, it’s about sharing and as such is best enjoyed in big groups, washed down with some Lebanese wine and then digested with the gentle smoke of flavoured tobacco from an argileh (more commonly called shisha in the UK).
My favourite memories of living in Syria all revolve around the food and especially the restaurants there. For someone who likes cooking, it should be a great place to, well, cook. Butchers, bakers, vegetable sellers are located on every street and, best of all, the spice markets are home to some of the most dazzlingly coloured and deliciously aromatic spices available anywhere in the world as well as a whole array of different nuts and dried fruits. Yet, in a year living there I think I cooked twice (and one of those times was scrambled eggs as 5 in the morning after an evening drinking too much arak). I just didn’t see the point in fiddling around in my very basic (an understatement) kitchen when I could eat in some of the finest restaurants in Damascus, order everything I wanted on the menu and get change from the equivalent of a fiver.
So, having become completely enamoured with the cuisine of a region that I previously had little knowledge of, the first thing I did on my return to England was head to Mandaloun restaurant next to Fulham Broadway tube to show it off to a friend, order pretty much everything on the menu, and then regret it a couple of hours later, when, as I drunk in the fragrant mint flavoured smoke from my argileh, the bill came (I had become accustomed to not even bothering to read prices on menus). Over 100 quid for two of us, more than I would spend in a month of eating out in Damascus.
I’ve learnt a few things from that chastising experience, most importantly a little restraint. I still go to Mandaloun on quite a regular basis and I love it. I tend to frequent their Chelsea premise as the setting is much more pleasant and the outside seating area larger. I just wouldn’t eat there. Now when I go there I use it as a great alternative to any one of the ‘trendy’ bars or overcrowded pubs located nearby (I loathe to admit that a number of my friends ‘reside’ in the area). It’s somewhere where I can sit outside and enjoy an argileh and a few glasses of Lebanese rosé from the very good Chateaux Kasara vineyard in the Beeka Valley, a bottle of Al Mazaa beer, or some arak (the Arabic equivalent of Ouzo) and, under the warmth of their outside heaters, enjoy a bit of Levantine lifestyle in West London. However, while the food is by no means awful, it’s just isn’t great. It doesn’t compare to the food I fell in love with and, while it may not be ludicrously expensive by London standards, it’s extortionate by Middle Eastern ones. Furthermore, the menu is uninspired and unoriginal. There is nothing that really catches your eye, nothing to elevate the restaurant above standard generic Lebanese fare.
In a way that same criticism could be levelled at Kaslik, a restaurant in Soho I inadvertently wandered into one day and have been going back ever since. The menu doesn’t stand out, it’s the basic selection of traditional mezze, grilled meat and kebabs. But, having said, everything on there is done very, very well. The atmosphere is wonderful, very arabesque, bordering on just the right side of kitsch, and the service is friendly and informal. The main seating area is very small, and customers are packed in on low benches, comforted by ornately decorated cushions around engraved gold coloured tables. Some might find it too cramped but it adds a certain charm and authenticity to the place. There is also a room downstairs which is available for larger groups.
It’s also so exciting to find somewhere which serves muhammara in London which, in my opinion, is the king of Syrian dips. It’s a bright red paste made from peppers which have been salted and then dried in the sun. mixed with walnuts, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses creating a unique, deep, slightly sweet yet also earthy and nutty flavour. It’s delicious and the one at Kaslik compares favourably to the ones I’ve eaten in the Middle East. However, for me the mark of a good Leventine restaurant will always be the grilled lamb and Kaslik doesn’t disappoint. In Syria the dish is known as sha’af and comes with delicious cubes of lamb fat, full of flavour which just disappear in the mouth. Sadly I’m yet to find somewhere which does this in England (must look harder) but, after the initial disappoint of realising that Kaslik wasn’t the first, I could concentrate on enjoying the lamb. It’s a meat which has such a strong flavour that you can serve it very simply, just a few basic spices, subtly applied which is exactly what they do, a hint of citrus, cooked perfectly, pink and juicy in the middle, with a spicy and tangy tomato dip on the side. Delicious and will keep me returning again and again. The prices are pretty reasonable as well.
Visit Restaurant Website
Address: Kaslik Soho, 58 Greek Street, London, W1D 3DY
Telephone: 020 7851 1585
Average Price Per Person: £20 - 30