I haven’t written one of these in a while. A job (writing) and life (a girlfriend) have got in the way. Since my last piece, on the wonderful Franceschetta58, Massimo Bottura’s affordable restaurant in Modena, I haven’t had the inclination to write much in my spare time, considering I’m sat at a computer doing just that all day.
But, while I get to do what I love for work – and, praise the lord, it involves food much of the time – I miss reviewing restaurants. Unfortunately, at a national newspaper, small fry like me don’t get to do that; it’s left to the big dogs.
So I’m back writing about all the weird and wonderful foods in London and, from time to time, beyond.
This week, I got to try out an excellent new restaurant in Clerkenwell: Sarona. Full disclaimer: it was a PR invite and press dinner. This won’t alter my perception, however. If it were shit, I’d probably just not write about it; I’ve had forgettable meals on PR invites, but this wasn’t one of those occasions.
Sarona is perhaps let down a little by its location. While there are excellent restaurants in the area – St John; Foxlow; and a host of good stuff in Exmouth Market (go to Moro ASAP) – if this were Soho or Shoreditch, I imagine it would’ve been jam-packed on a Tuesday night. Instead, it was about half-full.
The restaurant opened last month, piggybacking on London’s insatiable appetite for Middle Eastern food. There’s stiff competition from the likes of Moro, The Palomar, The Good Egg, Berber & Q, the Ottolenghi Empire, The Barbery, etc. etc. etc. The best compliment for Sarona? Its “Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine” more than holds its own alongside those restaurants.
Inspired by the street and market food of Tel Aviv, it feels a little less experimental than some places, but the food was consistently on point. To start, we lapped up most of the sharing plates on offer. I’d recommend going in a big group, as there’s plenty to get through.
All the greatest hits are here: hummus is velvety and rich with tahini. Mopped up with some wonderfully hot and fluffy pitta, we’re off to a good start. Sabanech (spinach, I think) with silky labneh and toasted pine nuts was equally impressive. A tomato salad with crumbly, tart, feta-like Palestinian cheese, doused with balsamic vinegar, shouldn’t be missed.
The real star of the starters, however, was burnt cauliflower on a bed of tahini. My god it was good. I’ve tried making burnt cauliflower so many times at home, and it never works out. Here, it was perfectly textured and seasoned with sumac, and the tahini was creamy and indulgent. I’d go back just for this dish.
Mains were also a hit. A burnt aubergine (they’re good at burning here), on a bed of, you guessed it, tahini, and smothered in sharp date syrup (which I once went on a day-long Ottolenghi-fuelled quest around London to find), was essentially a deconstructed baba ganoush, which I’m sure anybody could get on board with.
The schnitzel, as far as I can tell the only nod to Israel’s Ashkenazi population, with everything else focusing on Middle Eastern or north African influences, was good, but didn’t stand out (admittedly against strong competition). What was I expecting? I can make a good schnitzel, it’s not that hard. And while the chicken was tender, and the bashed out breast gigantic, I looked longingly at some enticing plates along our table: prawn kebabs, which half my fellow journos ordered; lamb parcels that looked divine; and a super-moist chicken pargit.
A glorious last hurrah came in the form of tahini (obviously) ice cream with a generous helping of caramel sauce. I was dubious, but it really worked.
The only hiccup was the service. New restaurants understandably take time to settle. Like a pair of obdurate Dr Martens, it can take a while to get comfortable. We did, however, wait a long time between courses, and one lady’s main arrived after we’d all finished. Like a good Brit, she kept shtum.
I don’t know how much it cost in total, but the prices are reasonable – starters and sharing plates around £6-9; mains up to £14. Come, bring a group of friends, order all the small plates, and you won’t regret it. You’ll have to stumble home, but it’ll be worth it.