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  • Writer's pictureJoanneFoodTsang

Shawarma Bar: Cozy Levantine Bolthole in Central London

Updated: Apr 4

If you're looking for some creamy dips, punchy shawarmas, and warm laffa, Shawarma Bar at Exmouth Market has it all. It is London's intimate take on Levantine cuisine.

Back room at Shawarma Bar

Located in the middle of Exmouth Market, in EC1 London, Shawarma Bar is a small, dim, amber-lit restaurant that emanates mystique when you peek into it from the outside. With hanging tapestries, exposed brick walls, and patterned cushions lining recessed walls for seats, the main dining area of Shawarma bar, or 'Back Room' as it is called, is evocative of a majlis (Arabic for 'sitting room'). Thanks to the cushions and tapestry, the buzz of the restaurant is muted. What remains is a cozy, blanketed murmur that is perfect for a dinner date with close friends .

About Levant

Levant is a historical geographical term referring to the Eastern Mediterranean area of West Asia which includes modern day Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Levantine cuisine shares many similarities with North African and Ottoman cuisines with it's concentration on hot and cold mezze spreads and their accompaniment of breads. Grains, legumes, vegetables, olive oil and bread are staples in Levantine cuisine, and such a focus is clear with a glance at the menu.

Star plates

Shawarma Bar is great to visit with friends - the spread of mezze fit for a group is definitely one to look forward to.

Personally, I would always make sure that their labneh with heritage beets, baba ganoush and falafel are on the table.

The labneh is garlicky and nutty, laced with walnuts and chives, and mellowed out perfectly by sweet heritage beets that lack the watery taste that is off-putting for some. The baba ganoush is properly smoky. It's a level of smoke that can only be achieved over an open flame, and it is beautifully complimented by roasted red peppers and crunchy pine nuts. The rounds of falafel come neatly piled on top of each other over a bed of garlicky tahini flooded by a generous swig of olive oil. The dark brown 'crust' of the falafel is thin and gives a slight crunch. Once bit open, you will find a vibrant green filling of chickpea, cilantro, and parsley. Wary of a dry falafel? Don't fear, they keep it soft and moist at Shawarma Bar.

Why haven't I mentioned the hummus? Well, the hummus (top plate pictured below) at Shawarma Bar is quite different from what you'd usually expect. The restaurant's Iraqi take on this well-known mezze sets it apart from many others available in the city. It is much earthier than most hummus, almost edging on bitter. Served with a hard-boiled egg and a spicy Yemeni sauce called 'schug', the plate is visually very exciting. I can't say however that this hummus tickles my fancy. Though, I do nod to Shawarma Bar for being brave and keeping us mezze lovers on our toes with this curveball.

Hummus and cauliflower shawarma at Shawarma Bar

The mezze spread comes with pita and challah (a braided bread with Jewish origins), but I highly recommend getting an extra order of laffa - it is a game changer. Laffa is a large, thin flatbread with Iraqi origins. It is light and elastic, almost like a thin sourdough pizza base, but slightly smokier in flavour. The softness of the laffa makes it the perfect vessel for moping up some baba ganoush, or any tahini left over from the plate of falafels.

A side I would order time and again would be the cauliflower shawarma (pictured). Don't confuse this with the grilled cauliflower also available on the menu - it's the cauliflower shawarma side we're mentioning here. The roasted cauliflower is completely covered by a yoghurt-based sauce, a solid drizzle of pomegranate molasses, and a generous garnishing of pine nuts, pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley. Cutting into this large piece of cauliflower is like cutting into a steak, but better - every forkful is texturally and flavourfully complex. There's freshness and the bittersweet taste of caramelisation, the silkiness of the sauces and soft cauliflower are broken up by the crunch of pine nuts and pop of pomegranate. There are so many robust flavours competing against each other for attention that you'd find yourself reaching for a bit of laffa to calm the tastebuds.

Whilst the lamb shawarma from the grill section is a notable mention, the mezze options and laffa at Shawarma Bar will be what's reeling me back into the restaurant.

Sugar and spice and everything nice

And of course, the drinks and desserts are a major temptation as well. Let's start with the drinks.

Display at Shawarma Bar

What's exciting at Shawarma Bar are the options for the alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The cocktails here have a Levantine twist with its sprinkle of cardamon and walnut in their Old Fashioned, and their dose of tobacco liqueur in their Negroni. If cocktails are your jam, Shawarma Bar will be intoxicating. For the non-alcoholic, I do recommend their rosemary lemonade and pomegranate spritzer. Both are refreshingly light and neither are sickly sweet in any way. The lemonade almost has a savoury note with the well infused fragrance of the rosemary. The spritzer is summer in a glass with the taste of fresh pomegranate and mint.

This subtle and almost natural tasting sweetness is echoed in the desserts. The malabi is a must try, and the chocolate hazelnut delice is also a lush option.

The malabi is a dessert most elegant.

The milk pudding is silky smooth and almost falling apart as you take a spoon of it. The hibiscus syrup gives a gentle sweetness whilst the grilled grapes chime in with its jammy raisin flavour. The dessert is rounded off by the strong floral scent of rose petals. Everything about the dessert glides, and the crunchy pistachios can only reinforce how smooth the malabi is.

The chocolate delice is anything but soft and smooth. If you are looking for a punchy and weighted finish to your meal, this is the one for you. The delice is wonderfully dark in bitter chocolate, and so densely creamy it was almost like a heavy ganache. This heaviness in flavour and texture is cut through by the crunch of nutty biscuit-base, candied dusting of orange and wispy citrus-tinged whipped cream.

Both desserts are so well balanced, I now know to save space for all things sweet and spiced the next time I'm here.

View from back room of Shawarma Bar

The verdict

For an intimate dinner out with friends, Shawarma Bar hits the sweet spot perfectly with its casual and cozy atmosphere, and phenomenal small plates.

No wonder this place is always full. Find me here again soon with friends in tow.

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1 Comment

Mar 14

The baba ganoush and the malabi are unforgettable !!

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