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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
22 Apr 2001

The journey from Kandoo to Maroush takes about half an hour if you are a quick walker.

Despite these enchanting names and the fact that along the way you pass Babylon Stores and the Cleopatra Unisex Hair and Beauty salon it is not a particularly romantic journey. Nor is it as dangerous as these unusual names may imply. The most hazardous aspect of this trip is crossing the road as the various double-decker buses come hurtling down the Edgware Road from Maida Vale to Marble Arch.

Maroush and Kandoo, which in Persian means beehive and is used here to reflect the shape of their blue-tiled tandoor oven, mark the extremities of London's greatest concentration of restaurants, shops and cafés specialising in Middle Eastern food and culture. As such it is of great interest to any food-lover, social observer and late-night reveller.

There does not seem to be any obvious reason for this agglomeration other than that nearby Bayswater has for many years been home to a significant Arab population and once one restaurant opened and prospered others simply followed suit.

If the two mentioned so far are busy, there is Fatoush and Tarboush to choose from or nearby the modern Café du Liban; the cavernous Al-Dar with its separate café next door; Meshwar or another simply called The Lebanese; at least two different outlets of the Maroush and, if you are in a hurry, diagonally opposite one another, the garish Beirut Express or one of my very own favourites, Ranoush Juice. Both of these serve food that would easily demonstrate to the holders of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises that there is no contradiction in wholesome fast food.

Middle Eastern food, the original cooking of Lebanon, Armenia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq, is so satisfying, reassuring and stimulating because the precise and correct principles were set down thousands of years ago. As you walk along this particular stretch of urban jungle you can watch chefs attacking vast piles of mint and flat leaf parsley, preparing skewers of halal meat and assembling them, or hummus, okra, chicken livers and half a dozen other fillings, into that most perfect vehicle for conveying food to the mouth, a warm piece of grilled pitta bread, in a manner that seems never to have changed. Long before the hamburger met the bun or the pizza its first topping, pitta reigned supreme.

There are several financial secrets behind this intense concentration of restaurants too. They are open seven days a week and, to meet demand, considerably later than most - Ranoush is open until 3am, Beirut Express until 2am. And even more importantly because Middle Eastern food is so easily transportable (and, unlike Chinese food, does not suffer in transit) the customers in the restaurant are only a small fraction of the overall business they do. On busy nights the kitchens are as busy loading trays of vine leaves, kebabs and baklava into small vans by the back door as they feed customers in their own diningroom.

The narrow, glass-fronted Ranoush Juice exemplifies this frenetic business. If you want to eat in, you order and pay at the central cash register, take your drinks ticket to the left (all these restaurants serve excellent freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices to take account of Islam's ban on alcohol) and your food order to the right where a trio of chefs man the grills and happily call you 'My friend' even if this is your first meeting. My £5 lunch consisted of one bowl of chicken livers, another of tomatoes, olives, capers, chillis and cucumbers, three pieces of hot pitta bread and a glass of carrot juice. But the dozen or so squeezed into the café were only a fraction of those taking advantage of the takeaway business.

Fifty yards away is Iran the Restaurant, an altogether more refined dining experience, exemplified by the sign 460-520 BC, a period in Iran's history highlighted by photographs on its glass frontage and the phrase 'We take much pride in our kitchen and you are welcome to visit if you wish' at the top of its menu (its owner also has a caviar-importing business).

The kitchen produces some particularly distinctive starters: mastmousir, a bowl of chopped wild garlic with yoghurt and salt; fulmadames, broad beans with lemon juice, olive oil and spice; ashamash, a thick soup of beans, turnips, fried onions and halim bademjon, warm aubergines mixed with mint and olive oil. Best of all is the ritual of their pitta. Rolled out behind the bar, it is then laid on a kind of pillow that is dropped into their marble tandoor oven for less than a minute before being sliced, served and in our case, eaten even more quickly.

Although Iran's kebabs are as good as any along this stretch their Khorescht dishes, or stews, are exemplary and perfect for dipping even more of their pitta into. Our table, which consisted of one amateur and three professional chefs, was impressed by bowls of okra with potato sauce, aubergines with split peas and dried lime, and most unusually, a thick sauce of walnuts, pumpkin and pomegranate alongside four different kinds of rice, the best of all being the shireen polo, rice mixed with almonds, pistachios and orange peel.

We went next door to Café Al-Dar for baklava and a Lebanese coffee liberally laced with cardamom seeds and looked on as a couple smoked their hookahs, which you can hire here for £6, and watched the world go by. I would like to report that the view from the café was of an olive grove or a busy souk but it was still the Edgware Road and on the far side were Allied, not magic, Carpets.

Two books that will help to recreate some of these dishes at home are Joyce Goldstein's Sephardic Flavors, Jewish cooking of the Mediterranean (Chronicle Books US$35) and Claudia Roden's Tamarind and Saffron now in Penguin paperback at £12.99.

4 branches of Maroush:
68 Edgware Road,W2, 020-7224 9339
21 Edgware Road,W2, 020-7723 0773
62 Seymour Street, W1, 020-7724 5024
38 Beauchamp Place, SW3, 020-7581 5434

Iran the Restaurant, 59 Edgware Road, London W2, 0207-723 1344
Ranoush Juice, 43 Edgware Road, London W2, 020-7723 5929
Kandoo, 458 Edgware Road 020-7724 2428
Beirut Express, 112 Edgware Road, 020-7724 2700
Al-Dar Restaurant and Cafe, 61 Edgware Road, 020-7402 2541
Fatoush, 183 Edgware Road, 020-7706 0725
The Lebanese, 60 Edgware Road, 020-7262 9585
Meshwar, 128 Edgware Road, 020-7723 7548

More books:
Food for the Vegetarian: Traditional Lebanese Recipes, Aida Karaoglan, Interlink Publishing £11
Lebanese Cuisine, Anissa Helou, St Martin's Press £16