The Barbary, Covent Garden
There are two good reasons for eating at The Barbary. One is the Jerusalem bagel, a wondrous piece of baking. Served warm from the oven, encrusted in spicy sesame seeds it must be the best bread roll in town.
The second is tha it’s an under-the-radar escape from the tourist hell of Covent Garden.
Oh and the third - there are, pace Monty Python THREE good reasons - the cauliflower Jaffa-style, a gorgeous plateful of spiced, singed cauli with tomatoes and fresh herbs If you’re a cauliflower aficionado you should definitely go.
Other then that, well, I’m not sure. I’m a big fan of The Palomar it’s parent/sister restaurant half a kilometre away just off Leicester Square which combines the buzz of sitting in front of the kitchen with some more relaxing tables at the back.
The Barbary is all about the bar, a big horseshoe-shaped, zinc-coated monster around which you all jostle on uncomfortable stools, unless you’re standing at the bar at the side waiting for a slot. Or queuing outside. Yes, it’s no reservations, small plates, loud(ish) music, yada yada yada - three of the things that have come to irritate me most about eating out over the last couple of years. But then I’m well over 40.
Prices include VAT and service
Because of the limited number of seats (24) there’s also an understandable tendency to try and push up what you spend. Ordering a glass of Massaya rosé I was asked if I’d like to try an Israeli one, on the basis that they were the only place in London that stocked it. Very lovely it was too but fortunately I asked what it cost - ‘a little more’ which turned out to be £11.50 for a small glass which is going it a bit. But the BIG PLUS is that their prices include service - or hospitality as they call it. No nasty surprises at the end.
Back to the food which is mostly delicious though there’s the occasional hardcore dish like a goat shishbarak, a slightly gamey deep-fried dumpling that I suspect won’t rock your boat unless you were brought up in Beirut.
The veggie dishes appeal most - fat chunks of earthy beetroot with a cumin and chilli glaze and some very good yoghurt were the perfect partner for the bagel. A restaurateur friend sitting along the bar strongly recommended the sardines. On a previous visit we wolfed our way through the the lamb-stuffed arayes (terrific), chicken msachen (hearty home-style chicken dish), swordfish kusbara and some pata negra neck. All good but definitely too much to stuff down in a short space of time. The fresh-tasting kohlrabi salad is a good counterpoint to such punchily-flavoured, rich food. The knafeh (cheese pastry) isn’t as good as Honey & Co’s IMHO.
Most people are mad about it so why am I being so equivocal? Basically because I like The Palomar (and Honey & Co, for that matter) better but if neither existed I suspect I'd make The Barbary a regular port of call. You just need to know how - and when - to eat there. Which is, I reckon, to swing by late lunchtime or early evening for a couple of dishes and avoid the queues. But don't on any account miss The Bagel.
The Barbary is at 16 Neal's Yard, Covent Garden in a small alleyway just off Shorts Gardens. It's closed on Monday and between 3 and 5 on other weekdays but opens all day Saturday and Sunday.
See my match of the week from The Palomar: salmon uri with spicy ginger beer
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