Arabesque returns in a blaze of glory
It's far from fancy, but customers are well looked after at neighbourhood restaurant that's been rebuilt after a fire
23 March, 2017 — By Tom Moggach
The food – Middle Eastern and Mediterranean – at Arabesque is simple but good
A DRAMATIC fire is a key chapter in the story of Arabesque, a neighbourhood restaurant in Swiss Cottage.
This closed the place for five years until 2015 and owner Kusai Farhan is still rebuilding his business from the ashes.
Yet in the era of Brexit and budget U-turns, other plot lines are just as compelling.
Farhan arrived in Britain from Baghdad in 1978 to complete a master’s degree in mathematics.
“Because of the turmoil and war in Iraq I couldn’t go back,” he explains.
Determined to work for himself, he rented this premises in Winchester Road in the early 1990s, transforming his health food shop into Arabesque in 1999.
“It’s very hard work. I do seven days a week… Competition is more and everything is more expensive.”
Rent has risen from £5,000 to nearly £20,000. “It’s very difficult, to be honest with you – the VAT, tax, overheads, wages and so on.”
I visited Arabesque for Saturday lunch. This small two-floor restaurant is tucked away near Hampstead Theatre, marked by a few tables outside. The place was busy: local families; groups of friends; a solitary lady studying French in one corner.
The food here is simple and good. The menu spans Middle Eastern and Mediterranean classics, from falafel and Greek salad to kebabs and calamari.
More unusual dishes include fava beans simmered in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice or pastries stuffed with lamb, parsley and spices.
“Tabsi”, a main dish, is a classic Iraqi recipe of layered potatoes, aubergine and other vegetables baked in a rich tomato sauce.
We enjoyed ourselves. The atmosphere is bright and cheerful. Walls are painted in bold turquoise, terracotta and white. A spiral staircase leads to a few secluded tables above.
Two black and white photos hung above our table. One shows a camel grumpily turning a wooden water wheel; the other an Egyptian family in Luxor huddled together outside.
We ordered a spread of starters. All the salads are lively and fresh with a spritz of lemony dressing. Stuffed vine leaves were just right – firm rather than squishy.
Kebabs are a speciality here, expertly cooked on the open grill.
A friend of mine lives in a flat next door. She recalls that before the fire customers used to flock from far and wide.
But trade has dipped since it re-opened. “People forgot about us,” says Farhan.
Deliveroo has been a blessing, pumping out takeaway orders – especially over the weekend.
This restaurant is a smart choice if you’re visiting the leisure centre or Hampstead Theatre nearby.
Arabesque is far from fancy. But that’s the point. This is a decent neighbourhood restaurant where you’re well looked after. A generous meal costs only £10-15.
23 Winchester Road, NW3
020 7041 9793