The ‘Street Food’ concept has become de rigueur for those seeking informal dining and is something to which Lebanese cuisine, seems ideally partnered. Based largely around Mezze, which like antipasto or tapas, offers the diner a cornucopia of choice, the food is vibrant, fresh and exciting and ideal for enjoying sociably with friends.
Yalla Yalla, established in 2008, is at the forefront of taking Lebanese cooking from the mundanity of Edgware Road to the hip Soho crowd. Initially based at a tiny site in the heart of Soho with only 28 seats, Jad Youseff and his partner Aga Ilska have expanded their business rapidly on the back of brisk trade, with a larger venue off Oxford Street and, more recently, a pop-up restaurant in Shoreditch.
Fine Dining Guide visited the Winsley Street restaurant on a Tuesday evening. Approaching the door, the popularity of this eatery was immediately obvious, with a large queue stretching out the door. Like many of its contemporaries, Yalla Yalla does not take bookings, however a relaxed bar area and efficient service mean that the wait for a table is far from arduous.
Drinks orders were taken quickly and our refreshment arrived promptly, accompanied by a tempting selection of the usual nibbles. Unusually, this included some extremely moreish slices of turnip that had been pickled with beetroot, along with requisite olives and fiery peppers.
As we enjoyed our drinks and accompaniments, we reviewed the menu and soaked up the surroundings. The decor, as one might expect, is contemporary and open plan, meaning noise can carry somewhat. Generally this adds to the vibrancy of the place, as does the close proximity of neighbouring tables. The walls are adorned with bright modern art pieces depicting street scenes from Beirut, and the soft furnishings appear similarly on theme, with cushions in the style of Kaffiyeh.
The menu is extensive, particularly when it comes to Mezze, and as we discovered, generous portions can make a hazard of over-ordering!
Staples such as Tabboule and Hommos were expertly delivered, with some interesting twists, for example, the Hommos Shawarma, with tender pieces of lamb shoulder were heaped upon a rich and glossy chickpea mash. This contrasted well against the fresh and slightly tart flavour of dishes such as the Samboussek Jibne, pastry parcels stuffed with Feta and Halloumi cheeses. Fine Dining Guide also sampled some more unusual options such as Makale Samak, an assortment of deep-fried seafood including Calamari, White Bait and Tiger Prawns, served with a chilli and mint yoghurt dip. One of the greatest achievements on the menu however, is the Sawda Djej, Chicken Livers sautéed with garlic and pomegranate molasses. This has been awarded the recognition as one of the top 100 dishes in 2012 according to Time Out Magazine, an accolade of which the perfectly cooked chicken livers were more than worthy.
Delicate spices and abundant starches form the backbone of most main dishes, enriched by the generous use of fresh herbs. The Lamb Casserole was rich and flavoursome, albeit slightly overpowered with Cumin. The Chicken Shawarma was more delicately flavoured, accompanied by a fresh red pepper salad. All dishes were served with delicious buttered rice and had in common a generous use of authentic and relatively expensive ingredients, used more sparingly by some other proprietors.
Despite there being plenty to feast heartily on for the savoury courses, dessert is a treat not to be overlooked. For those who have really over-done it, there is a decent range of refreshing sorbets. On the other hand those who are feeling more capacious will enjoy the sticky sweetness of the Baklawa selection or lighter options such as Mohalabya – fragrant milk pudding – topped with perfectly balanced Pomegranate syrup.
Prices are very reasonable, with Mezze ranging from £4-5 per dish and main dishes all coming in at less than £15. There is also a varied and well-compiled wine selection, including wines by the glass. With all this in mind, the name of Yalla Yalla seems very fitting, meaning ‘come on’ or ‘get going’ in Arabic.