Don’t be fooled by the rusty corrugated-iron fronting, Berber & Q is a polished operation where North African and Middle Eastern flavours meet North East London cool. At 6:30 we get some of the first seats, but by 7 the long wooden tables are full and by 7:30 a queue has formed. Fez hat lampshades cast a glow over the white-tiled bar, which stretches along the length of the restaurant towards an open kitchen. Behind, shelves are stacked with premium spirits, kilner bottles of exotic syrups, battered tins and toys, tea lights fluttering in jars, and bowls of citrus fruit.
Once glance at the tempting menu tells us that narrowing down our order will be a struggle, so we take our time over excellent cocktails. The ‘Lebaneeza’ of saffron-infused rum, grapefruit, demarara syrup and mint is fruity without being overly-sweet. An old-fashioned makes us feel like Don Draper, though the addition of date syrup and candied orange would have been less familiar to a ‘50s ad-man. Elsewhere, classic spirits are mixed with sumac, pomegranate, Clement shrub, baharat and pistachio.
After negotiating between our favoured dishes, we finally place an order. Meat dishes are typical of the North African ethnic group for which this restaurant is named, the Berbers. Lamb machoui is brushed with paprika and cumin butter, spit-roasted and shredded into tender strips with crisp, caramelised coating. Merguez sausages blush with harissa and sumac, their juices soaking into a fluffy pillow of pitta. Joojeh chicken thighs and smoked short rib glazed with date syrup are added to our list for next time. When topped with cumin salt and a sparing spoonful of toum (garlic sauce), then rolled in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs, these hearty cuts of meat are transformed into something delicate.
Surprisingly for a grill house, the meat – though delicious – plays second fiddle to the vegetarian mezze. Rising majestically from a thick pool of tahini and molasses, there is sweet, nutty cauliflower shawarma brightened by fresh pomegranate seeds and fragrant rose petals. Earthy beetroot with salty whipped feta, peppery dill and saffron-candied orange makes for a beguiling combination of textures and flavours. Even hummus, pedestrian elsewhere, is exceptional: each mouthful is laden with tahini and speckled with crispy chickpeas, before the light dressing of chilli oil and parsley cuts through its richness.
All that’s left to do is mop up the leftover sauces with another warm pitta, pay your dues, and leave with a very satisfied smile.
*Photographs courtesy of Fraser Communications*