Amongst the many countries and regions, that I have had the pleasure to live and work in, I have to say that the Middle East is defiantly high up on the list of most interesting.
From the bustling restaurants of Cairo and Amman, the Bedouin cafes around Petra to the roadside breakfast stops whilst guiding tours, food was always a massive part of all the tours that I led or was involved in.
Simple food bursting with flavour with lots of varying elements that all combine to produce a culinary treat.
I was utterly disappointed when Samirs of Stretford shut its door during Covid, as it had bought a real piece of Syria to our doorsteps.
So when I heard that Simon Shaw of El Gato Nego was to open a Middle Eastern restaurant in the space previously home to Panama Hattys, I was eager to learn more.
I am a fan of El Gato Nego, however not so much of Canto, the sister Portuguese restaurant, where I found service and food quality to be somewhat lacking in comparison.
So as we headed down for dinner on the opening night, I was hoping it would not disappoint.
Walking down the stairs of the entrance and into the vast open space, it looked great, with browns and oranges working well in the space, which doesn’t have the best natural light. The dining areas are dotted with a number of large replica plants in plastic and nylon, which aren’t the best, however I can understand their use given the lack of sunlight.
Sat down we are greeted again by the server, who was upbeat and gave a good explanation of the menu, which she seemed very passionate about.
Ordering a mix of dishes, they come as and when they are ready.
I like this kind of dining where I can graze, however some people like to order and have dishes turn up together. Only downside was the side dishes, which for us turned up at the end after other dishes had been consumed.
The first dish that arrived was the filo cigars stuffed with feta, spinach and sun blushed tomatoes (£8.50). The filo pastry was perfectly crispy with a filling that oozed out when cut into and delivered a flavour hit. Whilst the filling sounded like something that should be in a Greek Spanakotiropita, the flavours when combined with the red pepper relish really did bring a taste of the Middle East.
Next up were Tiger Prawns in a roasted red pepper and chilli sauce served with chargrilled sour dough (£10 for 4).
A very different style of prawn to those we enjoy at El Gato Nego, these are served with the head on, which while some aren’t keen on, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. The sauce was delicious and the prawns beautifully tender and perfectly cooked.
Next came Humus with Pita Bread (£4).
The small single piece of Pita was soft and served warm, but wasn’t enough for 2 and as these are meant to be dishes to share, I would expect it to have come with two of these small pieces. Luckily I still had the sourdough from the prawns to use to scoop up the humus.
For me though, this was the first disappointment of the night. In a bid to make the dish refined, it was made ultra smooth, but the overworking made it gloopy and lacking structure. The flavours where earthy and a little one directional, with Tahini overtaking any other flavour and I would prefer more lemon and garlic to be coming through. It is the first time I’ve not lapped up humus to the point of wanting to lick the plate.
The next dish helped to redeem the humus a little as the Spiced Lamb Jackets (£8.50) had been one I had been spying on social media since they were first spoken about.
Scooped out baby jacket skins are stuffed with a spiced lamb mince, similar to a keema, but with a Middle Eastern flavouring, drizzled with a mint yoghurt that bought a freshness to the dish, I thoroughly enjoyed this dish.
Then came the dish that India had been most passionate about ordering, the Prawn and Crab Fitters (£7)
Served in a dish of 4, India had one and left the remaining 3 to me, stating that they were a bit bland. I however enjoyed them, the flavour was very delicate, but was lifted somewhat by the lime and coriander dressing.
I ordered the next dish out of intrigue – Chicken Schnitzel with chilli and lime butter (£11) and whilst there was nothing wrong with the dish, it didn’t really do anything for me. It was well cooked, the lime was nice, but I could easily have left it.
The final dishes as mentioned were sides, which ideally you want while the other dishes are coming.
The Batata Hara (£5) or ‘Spicy Potatoes’ were pleasant, but rather than the familiar mix of potatoes, coriander, chilli, garlic and lemon of which I am accustomed to, these were a almost chip like potato chunk with more of a cumin flavour.
Persian-Style Rice (5.50) then arrived and again while not what I envisaged, was a real delight to eat. The Jasmine and Wild Rice mixed with caramelised onions and topped with crispy shallots and chilli was a flavour sensation. It’s not a Tah Dig but it is a fantastic rice dish.
I also couldn’t leave without trying a dessert of Chocolate Babka with Coconut Ice Cream (£6.50)
I’m not a massive dessert person and its usually India tucking into one while I enjoy a glass of red, however on this occasion I was very glad that I had given in and ordered.
The Babka was a great texture with one of the best coconut ice creams I’ve ever had, which each element bringing something to the dish.
For me there were some hits and some missed from the dishes we tried, a few people I know that attended a pre-launch on the Tuesday or Wednesday have highly recommended the Koftas, which I will be sure to try next time.
If you go to Habas expecting traditional Middle Eastern or Persian dishes, you may be disappointed, however that isn’t what it was marketed as and so shouldn’t be what its judged on. With its Middle Eastern inspired tapas style dishes, Simon has created some real flavour successes and I cant expect to be blown away by every dish on the menu as everyone’s tastes are different.
What I will say is that unlike Canto, this is one of his restaurants that I will return to and also recommend.