This review almost never was. I tried and failed twice to get into Berber & Q, the hippest Moroccan (ish) restaurant in town. The first attempt was on a Sunday evening when I happened to be drinking down the nearby Regent’s canal and thought I’d try my luck.
You can hear Berber & Q before you see it – it exudes the kind of muffled, thumpy bass that Haggerston leaks through its very pores. It’s nestled under a railway arch and shrouded in a gloom that promises exclusivity. It has a no reservations policy and, as the queue was already out the door, I had no chance. Those damned hipsters were waaaay ahead of me.
So instead I went to Tonkotsu, a ramen bar a few arches up the same railway line. There I ordered excellent, crispy prawn gyoza, average crab croquettes and lacklustre calamari. Then I had a bowl of Tokyo ramen, about which I was ambivalent. On the one hand, they make the bouncy, elastic noodles on-site, which is impressive, and the stock was rich and full of that distinctive umami flavour, and the half egg was perfectly on the cusp of liquid and solid and the strips of pork were fatty and smoky. But on the other hand, it’s hard to get worked up about a bowl of ramen. It was originally served from mobile carts to workers in ancient China and Japan – it’s food designed to fill a hole and few frills have been added since. Can you justify charging a tenner for a bowl? Even if it’s made with a swanky ramen-making machine? I’m not so sure.
On the second Berber & Q attempt later that week, I was told I’d have to wait a couple of hours, so I went next door to a place called Draughts, where you pay to play geeky board games with the kind of people you pretend you avoided at school. I enjoyed it, but don’t tell anyone (the food was crap but it’s a board game cafe not a restaurant, so who cares?).
And on the third attempt, Berber & Q said they had a space for two at the bar, at which point I fell to my knees in thanks. Once your eyes become accustomed to the almost complete lack of light, you start to notice the exposed brickwork all around and the tables running down the centre and the long, high bar at which I perched. I took a friend from Glasgow who, with his beard and black-framed glasses, blended in perfectly with the Haggerston clientele, but is in fact a quivering, vegan indie-boy who was dressing that way long before it was cool, and will still look like that when it’s uncool again.
You can tell it’s a North African/Middle Eastern/Ottoman restaurant because the menu is incomprehensible. Of course, you and I know what sabich, s’chug and amba are, and we’ve been chugging dukka and pangrattato and malabi since we were in short trousers, but spare a thought for those visiting from Glasgow. Everything arrives on metal trays, with the various elements – pickles, grilled meat, salad – all crammed on (points should be deducted for serving the pork on the same tray as the rest of the food despite one of us saying he was vegetarian).
We ate, in ascending order of quality: a rather bland blackened aubergine with the aforementioned sabich, s’chug and amba (look it up, pleb); some perfectly acceptable cold green beans with preserved lemon and pangrattato; a vast hunk of ever-so-slightly dry smoked pork belly with molasses and BBQ sauce; some magnificent corn on the cob with a creamy, spicy harissa aioli and lime; a life-changing bowl of sweet beetroot, whipped feta, saffron and candied orange; and quite simply the finest slaw I’ve ever tasted, topped with sour cream and pomegranate.
It really is very good. The staff are bright and engaging, the cocktails well designed (especially the Top Shelf, with tequila, green chartreuse, pistachio syrup and orange bitters). And I didn’t even get stuck into the home made Merguez sausage, or the smoked short-rib with date glaze, which I could see being prepared and looked divine (never eat with vegetarian friends…). I’ll be back. Again, and again, and again, until such time as they let me in.
First published in City A.M.