Reviewed by William Dobson
Martin: You guys should really try the cafeteria here. They’ve got a new chef – he’s from Yemen!
Frasier: So many of the great ones are!
Dr. Crane was clearly being disingenuous when he made this remark, although perhaps a trip to The Queen of Sheba, just off the Edgware Road, might alter his opinion. This certainly isn’t the haute cuisine that Seattle’s favourite son and his brother Niles so enjoy – it would never become their chez away from chez – but, it terms of flavour, I’m sure even the good doctors couldn’t fail to be impressed.
Claiming to be the first and only restaurant in London serving Yemeni food, they combine the more generic Arab dishes, such as a selection of mezzes or shawarmas, with those that are unique to The Yemen. In particular, the saltah and the mandi are outstanding and reflect the cuisine of two distinct regions of the country.
Saltah is the favourite dish of the nation’s capital (Sana’a) and is an excellent accompaniment to a day spent chewing qat – apparently, saltah stimulates the taste buds, and qat chewers say they savour qat more intensely after eating saltah. The menu describes it as ‘lamb soup’ which is somewhat misleading. It’s actually more of a stew, cooked in a stone pot called a ‘madr’, which is then delivered to the table, still bubbling away. It has a unique taste, with the meat full of flavour and mouthwateringly soft, and an intriguing mix of herbs and spices. When I asked the waiter what was in it, I was slightly surprised to be told ‘lamp, soup of lamp, egg, green stuff and paper.’ Despite this rather bizarre recipe, it was truly delicious and incredibly filling. One order would comfortably feed two people. To be honest, I’m pretty sure the aforementioned ingredients weren’t exactly how it was cooked and may have had more to do with the waiter’s lack of English. This had already been demonstrated when it had transpired that he didn’t understand the words ‘salt’ or ‘straw’ – both fairly fundamental when working in a restaurant I would have imagined – but only added to the charm of sitting in a restaurant in London and feeling as if you could be the other side of the world. In fact, saltah is made from lamb, cooked in broth with potatoes, coriander and chillies and a Yemeni spice mix called ‘hawaij’, before lightly beaten eggs are used to thicken the sauce and ‘hulbah’ – ground fenugreek soaked in water and then strained – is added. It is served with the most amazing Yemeni flatbread, baked freshly for you in their special tandoor. It’s a wonderful and unusual dish and, having been lucky enough to spend some time in The Yemen, it remains my overriding memory of being there. Finding a place in London cooking it this well is an absolute pleasure.
Mandi is Yemen’s other national dish, originating from the Hadramaut region, home to a rural and traditional desert lifestyle. However, mandi remains one of Yemen’s most popular exports. Indeed, there is a whole street in Damascus full of restaurants selling nothing but this simple but delectable dish of spiced basmati rice and succulent lamb or chicken. The one we had at Queen of Sheba was as good as anywhere I’ve had before. The rice was cooked to perfection – something that seems so hard to do at home – and would have been a satisfying meal in itself. It was delectably spiced with peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and saffron and served with lamb, cooked until soft and falling off the bone. The highlight was being able to suck out the marrow. Heaven!
Although no alcohol is served there, it is BYO and they don’t even charge for corkage. The meal is finished off with a cup of Yemeni tea or one of their interesting selection of coffees, including one spiced with ginger which sounded delicious, while sitting under their outside awnings enjoying the smell of shisha wafting from the packed tables, listening to the chatter of Arabic and forgetting that you’re sitting in the middle of Paddington and not a side street in the heart of Sana’a.
Visit Restaurant Website
Address: 3/4 Bouverie Place, Paddington / Off Edgware Road, Westminster, London, W2 1RE
Telephone: 0207 402 6667
Average Price Per Person: £10-20