Sohaila, 232 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6PJ. Small plates £4-£9, large plates £11-£15, desserts £7, wines from £32
We live in desperate times. According to the hospitality industry website, the Nusr-Et Steakhouse in Knightsbridge, famous for its super-pricey gold-wrapped steaks, has Coded, had to abandon the use of gold leaf. As with chickpeas and vegetable oil, there are supply chain issues. So now they just whip up stupidly expensive steaks without any precious metals. Where is the joy in that? They don’t even have that Bae of salt dude, the one with the undertones and signature salting move, like Rod Hull’s Emu, “naked and disgracing himself vomiting in his own neck” (yes, I quote myself; I can’t improve on that). He’s at one of his other 15 restaurants, where they’re always unnecessarily wrapping steaks in gold foil so the rich can hate each other a little more.
But wait. All is not dark. A new Mayfair joint has opened with the proud announcement that its menu will include a dish costing £3,000. Apparently it’s a bucket of caviar with a dark sense of inadequacy on the side. I’m not naming the place or the chef or the PR company promoting it because that’s exactly what they want. All three should be ashamed of themselves. And if they’re not, no worries because I’m ashamed of them.
Stories like this can make you despair of the restaurant business. What exactly is it for? So let’s have something to restore some faith that doesn’t involve gold leaf or caviar or a bloated disrespect for anything that costs less than a grand. Fat Macy’s is a social enterprise tackling the issues of homelessness by offering internships and internships in the hospitality industry to people who need help moving out of temporary accommodation. I have mentioned them several times in my “News” section online. They have an outdoor catering business, allowing their customers to work both alongside the chefs in the kitchen and in front of customers. This is a program that helps them access the subsidies they need to pay rent installments for permanent housing.
Now they have their own rather lovely restaurant and wine bar. It is located in London’s Shoreditch and is called Sohaila, named after the grandmother of the association’s general manager, Nathalie Moukarzel. “We use her recipes for a lot of our dishes,” she simply told me. It has a short Middle Eastern menu because it’s Shoreditch and they know exactly what people like here and usually that involves sumac and tahini. The kitchen is run by Doug Rolle, who worked at vigor, which is a little weird because this is the third time in just over a month that I’ve had the opportunity to mention Brawn. Maybe it’s a conspiracy.
Sohaila is a compact space. In the basement, there is a high communal table, occupied the night I was there by a group of well-lubricated happy souls. Above there is a wine store at the front which will eventually house 100 labels, available both to drink here or to take home. Then there’s the low-ceilinged dining room with bare floors, whitewashed brick walls, and a laid-back “do what you love” vibe.
It’s not the quietest of spaces. The sound resonates and clacks. But if you came to Shoreditch looking for a cloister you made a big mistake, probably in Holborn. What matters is the liveliness of the food and the cheerfulness with which it is delivered. None of the dishes will surprise you, but they are all very good examples of their type. There’s an almost frothy lightness to the whipped tarama, dusted with a bit of that citrus sumac, the dusting of purple contrasting vividly with the pink. It comes with crunchy radishes and crispy caraway seed cracker sheets.
There’s a large salad heaped with Vesuvius tomatoes with golden fried flatbread shards, much like a fattoush. Lightly roasted artichokes and friggitelli peppers come on a thick puddle of seasoned tahini. Naturally, there’s a large round bowl of coarse smoked hummus, its center well filled with fresh, tangy green olive oil and more chickpeas. It was before the shortage of chickpeas was announced and we eat them with the casualness of those who think there will always be hummus. Among the greatest dishes is a tajine of the most tender rabbit, practically floating on the cinnamon puff with, on the side, a herbed bulgur pilaf. Only the mushroom shish barak, pouches filled with slightly heavy pasta with spiced yogurt, looks out of place; it’s a winter dish in the sun. The price for it all is exceptionally inviting, with no large dish costing more than £15 and small plates costing around £7.
Which is helpful, given the wine. The growing list and bottle store is called a “library”. This is a troubling use of language. I can promise you that if I remove one of these bottles, it won’t come back, or if it does, it won’t contain the same liquid it came out with. And because it’s Shoreditch in 2022, it’s natural and quirky. That’s good, because I’ve now learned to say, “Give me something that doesn’t have sewer notes,” without sounding aggressive. The wine is overseen by Alexandros Vainas, who was at Morito. He is an endearing and enthusiastic guide. He takes my resistance in stride and finds us a slightly effervescent rosé from Spain. The problem is that this commitment to the original vineyards comes at a cost. There’s nothing on the list below £32. Most are £40 or well above. This unbalances the price of the experience. They need to add a few bottles that are accessible to those on tighter budgets.
Because, in a restaurant industry that can truly be teeming with unpolished turds, a place like Sohaila deserves to flourish. It’s charming, the food is great, and at its heart is a noble purpose. I don’t know if I was served by one of Fat Macy’s interns. It would rather miss the point to highlight their journey next to my table. All I know is that at the end we were fed a ridiculously rich chocolate mousse topped with an outrageous tahini caramel with nuts for crunch and a lemon posset, under a lake magnificent raspberry coulis. We drank our rosé and thanked that amidst all the clumsy and pathetic PR stunts, there could still be restaurants like Sohaila.
Catering industry charity Hospitality Action has announced a major fundraiser in Liverpool this autumn. The four-course dinner, on November 7 at the Hilton Liverpool, will be prepared by four top North West chefs: Ellis Barrie from Lerpwl, Aiden Byrne from Church Green, Paul Leonard from Forest Side and Tom Parker from White Swan. Tickets, which include drinks, canapes and wine with the meal, cost £130 each. Book here.
It seems a bit rotten to deliver bad news about Birmingham when it’s the center of such a celebration of sport, but sometimes I’m just the reporter. A study of Food Standards Agency data found the city had the highest proportion of restaurants with poor scores under the Hygiene Rating System, with 11% of restaurants and takeaways failing. having only one or two stars. The second worst was Southend-on-Sea with 7% followed by Westminster. Ipswich is the most hygienic, with 100% of establishments rated four or five stars.
Southwest-based seafood restaurant group Rockfish has announced plans to add three more outposts to the eight-person collection. Alongside the previously announced redfish in Salcombe, there will be sites in Sidmouth and Topsham. They also acquired two of their suppliers to help streamline the supply chain and dropped cod from their menus in favor of native species. Visit therockfish.co.uk.