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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
30 May 2009

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

Chefs, restaurateurs and those who are brave enough to back them are continually searching for a formula that can be described as 'fast good'. This phrase, coined initially by Ferran Adria of El Bulli when he started working with NH Hotels in Spain, describes a style of informal, swift but accurate cooking which will immediately delight and satisfy today's demanding customers. Most importantly, it should be easy to replicate.

Green's Court, a small alleyway off Brewer Street in central London, has just witnessed the opening of the first branch of Yalla Yalla, a Lebanese café that I believe has the potential to fulfil all these criteria. And it is not just its setting which is remarkable.

Despite the sex shops and ads for 'models', Green's Court has long been a magnet for food lovers because it has for decades been home to Lina Stores, one of Soho's longest standing Italian delicatessens. And it was down here that six months ago Jad Youssef, a chef trained in his home town of Beirut, walked with his partner Agnieszka Ilska (known as Aga), born in Poznan, Poland, having found a site for sale on the internet.

The condition of the building that had once been an Indian and then an Italian restaurant would have put off anyone older (he is 32, she 25) or with any more money. 'We have spent £80,000 on Yalla Yalla, it's all the savings we had', Ilska explained with a brave smile, 'but we are happier that they are in here rather than in HSBC'.

Nor do this couple, who must see very little of one another even though they live and work together, lack talent, vision or determination.

Having trained for six years in Beirut, Youssef came to cook in London, initially at Fakhreldine on Piccadilly and then at Kenza in the City, and it was here that his ambitions grew. 'Like all chefs, I have always wanted to open my own restaurant', he said with a shy smile, 'but once here I began to dream of something bigger'.

Whether he could have fallen in love with anyone more compatible than Ilska only time will tell. Having started work as a waitress at Fakhreldine as a student, she rose to the position of general manager and it was obvious to me from watching her sweep the floor before she sat down to talk to me at Yalla Yalla that she has all the determination necessary to ensure their restaurant will succeed.

It has a very good chance of doing so because from its name, to its logo, to its inexpensive but intimate interior, and to its highly flexible menu, Youssef and Ilska have put together a package that is very attractive even before you eat his food.

Yalla means hurry up or come on in Arabic and is an expression heard loud and clear across the streets of Beirut, notably from mothers to their children, according to Youssef. It is easily pronounceable and highly memorable, even to non-Arabic speakers, and cleverly ties in their goal to serve Beirut street food with the snappy tag line, 'Eat in or take to the streets'.

Working with design consultants, they have used only three colours, a warm yellow, black and an off-white to create an unusual but cosy interior while the yellow adds a vital brightness to their frontage in an otherwise drab street. There is room for only nine tables and about 25 stools but along the walls the bright cushions they bought in Beirut last summer add an extra dimension of comfort, while the three black and white photos of Beirut in the 1950s, which came from Youssef's family album, add atmosphere and authenticity.

This relatively small interior does not, however, restrict Yalla Yalla's commercial potential because the composition of Lebanese food makes it more flexible than most, ideally suited for anyone in the area choosing to eat a tabbouleh salad, a bowl of fattoush or some kibbes in front of their computers or in one of the parks nearby. Ilska said that take-away was about a third of sales with several local offices already beginning to request a delivery service.

None of this would be happening if Youssef were not such a talented cook. In a simple but effective move they demolished the former bar on the far wall and replaced it with a large counter that is now Ilska's domaine. Here she stands in front of an array of the inexpensive, delicious food that Youssef and his assistant make every day. There is a range of pita wraps filled with falafal; spicy Lebanese sausages with yoghurt; thin slices of marinated lamb with pickled turnips; and chicken with a garlic sauce. Then there are the pastries filled with halloumi cheese, sesame seeds and suma and spinach with spring onions as well as a range of freshly squeezed juices. And fresh mint tea, of course, served in pots specifically bought in Beirut but made in China.

Youssef spends equally long hours in the basement kitchen down a precarious set of stairs (the food travels more smoothly, in a dumb waiter) preparing the more complicated main courses, including lamb skewers, sea bass fillets and a mixed grill cooked over a traditional wood-burning grill. The enthusiasm for what he described as his two favourite dishes, sawda djej, chicken livers with pomegranate molasses, and makale samak, deep fried fish with aubergine and minted yoghurt, was almost infectious.

As he talked, his assistant was making hommos, the ubiquitous chickpea puree with sesame seeds, but adding what Youssef described as the distinctive ingredient, fresh lemon juice rather than the citric acid used in many commercial kitchens. This small but vitally important distinction may yet hold the key to Yalla Yalla's future development in 'fast good' food. Youssef and Ilska will not lack for future backers on the basis of all that I have seen and eaten there, but its overriding commercial success will depend on how strongly they can hold on to their culinary principles. Having met them, I would not bet against such a determined young couple.

Yalla Yalla,