Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Abu Zaad

One thing we loved about being in London was all of the international cuisines. Being from New York, we love that we have restaurants representing so many different cultures and countries, and that we can learn more about them through their food. (After all, that's a big driver behind our WorldEats quest.) London was very similar to New York in that way, lots of options, lots of countries represented. We were pretty excited that the neighborhood where our hotel was located, Shepherd's Bush, had a bunch of new options for us. We were especially interested in the Syrian food there, since this would likely be the closest we would ever get to experiencing Syria in our lifetimes.

After a (very long) nap at the hotel which made us feel much, much better, we headed over to Abu Zaad, a Syrian (Damascene) restaurant. We were pretty hungry so we ordered a lot of stuff (probably more than we should have). We started off with drinks - ayran (£1.50) for A and Abu Zaad tropical juice (£2.75) for me. I wasn't sure what fruit juices constituted "tropical juice," so I asked the server before ordering it. He thought maybe it was mango or apple, but what arrived didn't look like mango or apple juice. It tasted more like strawberry banana juice with a hint of mango. Whatever was in it, it was good, nice and sweet. If you're not familiar with ayran, it's a yogurt drink that tastes a little bit like cheese. It's thick and rich, and it has a hint of saltiness to it. It's a bit heavy/rich for me to drink more than a few sips, but A really enjoys it. This one kind of tasted like a liquefied goat cheese.

On the Yelp app (which we mostly use for the bookmarks and maps), A noticed that we could get a free starter if we checked in. Free appetizer? Yes, please. The choices were hummus, tabouli, falafel, or an Arabic salad. We love hummus, so we went with that. The generous portion of hummus came with a basket of 3 thin wheat pitas. The hummus was pretty good - rich and full of chickpea flavor, topped with some olive oil, parsley, and a little bit of red spice/seasoning (maybe paprika). While it might not be the best hummus we've ever had, it was certainly quite good. Unfortunately there was much more hummus than we had expected, and we already ordered a lot of other food, so we weren't able to finish all of it, but we tried our best.

After the hummus we tried the mosakhan, also called chicken sambousik, which came in an order of 4 pieces for £4. These were described on the menu as fried pastry stuffed with chicken, fresh sumac, onion, and spices, basically the Syrian variation on samosas/sambousik/sambusa (which we love).

The first bite of these reminded me of these chicken samosas I used to get at Costco years ago for New Years and really loved. As I ate more of it, it became a little more distinct in its spices and seasonings, but it was still relatively reminiscent of those, in size, in shape, in crispness, also stuffed with well-seasoned minced chicken. We're guessing that maybe the sumac made the difference. We love sumac, so this was fine with us.

The other appetizer we got was the fattet makdous (£5), described as "baby aubergine stuffed with minced meat, marinated in yogurt and tahini sauce, mixed with fried bread, infused with garlic and topped with pine nut, paprika, and butter ghee." This was different from anything we had eaten before, even though some of the flavors of the roasted vegetables, the eggplant, the yogurt, and the tahini were familiar. It was kind of like comfort food, like a creamy stew of yogurt and tahini with soft eggplant and meat and bread, the flavors all mixing together so well. We made sure to finish the entire thing since we weren't sure we would find anything like this at home.

For our entrees, A and I each got something different from the grill section of the menu. He chose macmour (£10), a special lamb dish that was only available on the weekends. It was a charcoal steamed lamb thigh "prepared and cooked in a traditional and unique way," in a gravy with some roasted potatoes and carrots. The lamb was incredibly tender, easily pulled off the bone and shredded without much effort, and the roasted vegetables and gravy had so much flavor. On the side was a basmati rice pilaf topped with carrots, which tasted like it had currants, cardamom pods, cumin, and cinnamon mixed in as well. Each individual part of the dish was really good, but together, it was even better. A really liked his choice.

I chose the farrouj Abu Zaad (£9) for my entree, which was grilled tender boneless baby chicken, marinated with Abu Zaad's special sauce. It came with another pita (which I only ate part of because I was already so full of pita) and a small side salad of lettuce, cucumber, red onion, and cilantro. The salad didn't seem to have much dressing, but that was okay because there were also 2 dips/sauces on the side of my entree - hot sauce and garlic whip - which made up for any lack of dressing. The hot sauce reminded us a little bit of the (very hot) hot sauce that we get from some of the Ethiopian restaurants at home, tomato-based with chili peppers, tasting a little bit like salsa, very fresh and clean with a bit of a kick to it. The garlic whip was like the Lebanese toum (which makes sense since they are neighbors), a thick spread with a very heavy garlic flavor (although not as heavy as some other garlic whips we've had before). We ate all of the garlic sauce, putting it on everything we could. We did not eat all of the hot sauce, but we did like it.

As for the chicken itself, it was pretty good. It seemed like a Cornish hen spatchcocked and grilled with the skin on. I liked the white meat pieces a little more than the dark meat (which is typical for me), and some of the wing pieces were just too much work with the cartilage so I gave them to A. I'm not exactly sure what was in the marinade for the chicken (the Abu Zaad special sauce) but it had a nice flavor. Without the hot sauce or the garlic sauce, the chicken would probably have just been okay, but that's why they give you the sauces, right? They complemented the flavors of the marinated chicken really well and took it to another level.

Reflecting after dinner, I was pretty amused that this was a rehash of what we had ordered on the plane - A with an order of meat with roasted vegetables and me with an order of chicken - but luckily for me, there wasn't as great a disparity between how we felt about the 2 dishes. They were both good. A loves lamb, so he was fairly sure he would prefer his dish to mine. For the most part, he did, except the balance tipped in favor of my dish because he loved the garlic sauce so much. I thought his lamb dish was good, but I usually prefer chicken to lamb, so it's no surprise that I liked the entree I picked better.

Overall, our first (and so far only) experience with Syrian food was excellent. Abu Zaad was a wonderful first dinner in London - generous portions, decent prices, friendly staff. We would definitely go back.

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