Words: Chris Zacharia
Warmth is always welcome, but during winter it’s indispensable.
But it’s not just heat. The colder months also inspire a deep yearning for an inner warmth, the kind that comforts you from within. There’s nothing like an icy blast to make you huddle together with fire, food and friends.
So when you’re eating out in winter, you need somewhere that will warm you all over. Villa Mama, Britain’s first Bahraini restaurant, is the kind of place that lights a fire within you. Rich, aromatic flavours, bold spices and kind-natured service make it an excellent place to escape the cold and revel in warmth.
It might serve a Middle Eastern food, but Villa Mama’s style is west London. Candlelight casts silhouettes upon the marble tabletops, a Persian rug adds a meditative calm to the clay-coloured walls, and tasteful wreaths of twigs bring bursts of green.
To start, our French waiter brings us khubus, a flatbread of puffy pillowy hillocks and crispy valleys. It’s drizzled with mahyawa, a silky sardine sauce which gathers in glossy pools. It’s worth getting messy for – tear the kubus, slide it through the fermented fish and enjoy the savoury salvo.
Aubergine arrives in the shape of a beehive, a mound of vegetable layered with caramelised onions and adorned with a whey sauce. A smattering of walnut shards crowns it. A few forkfuls later and the menu’s excitable description (‘[head chef] Roaya’s eggplant explosion’) becomes clear. It’s dense, rich and engaging, never cloying.
Much of Arabic food is vibrant, fragrant and assertive. Villa Mama’s best dishes dance with all three. Ash soup, the soup of the day, is one of those dishes whose masterful blend of flavours has you purring. A thick swirl of spinach, sweet onions, rice and lentils, enlivened by plenty of parsley and turmeric. Every mouthful elicits an unsuppressed ‘mmmmm’.
By the time the starters are ransacked of their treasures, we’re awaiting the mains with renewed relish. Yet whereas the starters are sharp, punchy and surprising, our big hitters are less successful.
Mozat laham, recommended by our charming waiter as a favourite, makes you salivate: braised lamb shank with pine nuts served on a bed of vermicelli and rosemary. The meat is soft, dripping off the bone like caramel, but tastes dry. The thick gravy which coats it looks delicious, but doesn’t add much flavour. Maybe we’re just too in love with those starters.
Meanwhile, the machbous deyay arrives proudly bearing the title of ‘national dish of Bahrain’. Chargrilled chicken strips, proudly displaying their grill-line black ladders, rest upon a fragrant bed of pilaf rice. Each strip is tender and succulent, and the rice teases the tastebuds with sweet and savoury: coriander, cloves and cardamom are all woven together in a fragrant patchwork of spice.
Dessert brings back a bit of pizzazz. Umm ali, an Egyptian bread pudding, is nice but like those main dishes feels restrained. Domes of pastry, joined together in a hexagonal honeycomb, are soaked with a milky sauce and showered in cinnamon, pistachios and raisins. What if that sauce were thicker, creamier? What if the chef shook a little more of those spices?
Saffron ice cream suffers none of these reservations. A peach coloured mound is crowned with a bushy knot of what the menu describes as candyfloss. Managing to capture the subtlety of the saffron, the combination with the stringy candyfloss is a diabolically playful move, combining one of the most prized ingredients with a fairground whimsy, an eastern spice with a western confection.
Unexpected, fragrant, zingy – it’s Villa Mama at its best. Although some of the dishes leave us wanting a bit more, there’s plenty to love here. From the waiting staff to those aromatic starters, there’s enough warmth to get you through the darkest winter’s night.
25 Elystan St
Tel: 020 3034 0777