The Barbary: Great expectations comfortably met (September 2016)

I was lucky enough to be one of the early visitors to the Palomar and loved it the first time I went and also on every subsequent visit. Day or night, counter or table, it never failed to impress. Indeed, getting a booking there now is notoriously difficult. From the same team now comes their second offering, The Barbary, a tiny outlet located in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard area. If the Palomar takes its logical inspiration from Israel, drawing on both the Mediterranean to the west and the Middle East on the opposite side, then The Barbary’s reach is even wider. As the name suggests, the Barbary Coast is the culinary focus for this restaurant, the chefs invoking influences from the middle and western coastal regions of North Africa. It is always unfair to make too many comparisons: the Barbary is not trying to be the Palomar. The former is much smaller – just 24 covers, seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar with no reservations – with a dark, funky and slightly dirty (in a cool way) atmosphere, perhaps reminiscent of a souk at some level. The music matches the atmosphere, hip and eclectic, even at lunchtime when we visited. Despite arriving at 12.10, with the restaurant having opened just 10 minutes prior, The Barbary was already half-full; not the sign of it simply being a new place, but the fact that with an experience this good, there would be every reason to return. Perched on the bar, all diners get to see the chefs at work, a vibrant, lively and entertaining experience. It’s a performance to be savoured, both the visual and obviously the edible. Dishes are priced very fairly (at around £4 for nibbles and £10-15 for mains) and diners are encouraged to mix and match, share and enjoy. In addition to the standard menu, there are daily changing specials too. Things began well with our Berber-style naan bread (plump with the subtlest dash of oil) paired with zhug (a spice paste – and a new word for my lexicon), harissa, burnt and pickled chilli – a perfect and invigorating combination, the comforting with the hot. Mains were all stand-out, so much so that we ordered an additional one. Lamb cutlets ‘Zuzu’ style were intensely succulent, while the octopus ‘Mashawsha’ (served on a bed of pulped chick peas) was close to perfection. There were no failures. Paired with a bottle of Austrian Zweigelt (an interesting option from a diverse list), we were in culinary heaven. At c£50/head – and it would be possible to do things more cheaply than this – I was left in a very good mood. My desire to tell others about this experience is only balanced by the fact that I want there to be a space for me the next time I go.