Last year we raved about the new rather grown-up new branch of Borough Market’s Levant restaurant Arabica, housed within a ground floor corner of the newish Aga Khan Centre building.
Back in those pre-Covid times, it was all about cramming as many people in round the counter by the open kitchen to watch the chefs at the pide oven, or chopping, sizzling and remaining impressively calm throughout.
And of course the large communal table was a feature, around which strangers – unbelievably now – clustered in extremely close companionship.
Now of course, it’s all spacious tables, temperature checks and airy social distancing. Our table-for-two was by the window, and almost hidden from other diners. So I bet the owners are glad of the space here.
The inspo is drawn everywhere from Jordan and the mountainous villages of Lebanon to cities like Istanbul, Beirut, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There are the usual sections familiar to those who eat out regularly, including hot and cold mezze, clay oven, charcoal grill and veg.
It still stands – as it did last year – that the staff overegg with their suggestion of three-four dishes per person: we ordered six and struggled with the last couple. This is hearty fare: breads, sauces, dips, falafel. Carbs and (healthy) fats, but lots of both. Our tip? Start with five between two – and order more if needed.
Least impressive was actually a previous favourite, the Berbere Spiced Cauliflower, its burnt florets sitting in too much of a slick of tahini yoghurt, with not enough pomegranate and pistacho to add interest.
Especially good, however was the Babaganoush Man’ousheh, the Lebanese flatbread topped with deeply savoury smoked aubergine, tahini, toasted walnuts and pomegranate. And at £9 it would be enough for a light dinner – or decent lunch.
Arabica is also effective on salads and sides: tabbouleh is a riot of green – parsley, mint, cucumber – with lemon and oil adding smooth acidity to the cracked bulgar wheat. And the falafel bites yielded crunch and soft hot innards, a fermented chilli tarator adding heat. Another new dish on us this time? The cutely named Fish Shish, opaque spiced cod cheeks paired with coal-roasted peppers, chickpeas and coriander: the two skewers were gone in seconds though.
So the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, Arabica still rocks it, but alas it wasn’t busy – although not too bad for a Tuesday night in October. And it’s a shame that opposite Little Creatures Brewery – always packed pre-Covid – is now boarded up, as it makes this corner of Lewis Cubitt’s Park rather forlorn.
But turn a corner and up on the Granary Square venues are all still doing a swift trade: at the Brasserie, almost every table was taken, not to mention the terrace outside, while next door at Caravan it’s a similar story. Let’s hope they all make it through this testing winter.