‘I went here. I ate this. It was nice. I ate another thing. It was nice. Here is a picture. Isn’t it nice?’
So runs my brother’s pretty withering critique of much ‘food blogging.’
Often on this blog I’ve tried to come up with a narrative, to come to terms with a restaurant on more than the above basis; to try, however fleetingly, to take you to the table with me.
A major ingredient in, say, Hang Fire’s rise to national renown was the tale of two high achievers who gave it all up in search of something more. People love a story: the rise of Meat and Greek from ingenue to street food stars in the space of a fortnight, or the way Brixton’s Mamalan developed as a tribute to the founder’s mother’s Beijing street food stall, or the way Paco Sanchez and his wife Sue risked everything they owned to back their sons’ remarkable talent.
I’m a sucker for a good story, which brings us to Falafilo Island.
This one has the unhappiest of beginnings: a country tearing itself apart, a young couple fleeing violence and destruction, afraid for their lives, seeking asylum
Maijan Hussain and her husband Oskar Ali fled when Syria was plunged into the hell of civil war.
Their home was Al-Qamishli, the site of some particularly brutal and bloody battles, between ISIS, Assad’s army and other groups. They lost their home, their college, their community. They escaped, in no doubt that their lives were in peril, and found refuge in Britain and ending up in Newport.
And then, safe from danger, doing what they love: cooking the food they know best, the food they grew up with, with all the memories of home that involves. Feeding grateful locals. When an ex-colleague gets in touch to tell me he is now working for Sanctuary Newport, a group which advocates for and supports asylum seekers, and that there’s a food angle- over the years we worked together, he had to endure me heating up leftover curries for breakfast in the staff room microwave more than once- he knows I’d be interested.
The restaurant itself has changed since I was last here, for Pretentious Burger Kitchen, with a fresh look about the place. It’s named after a former favourite in Aleppo.
We have three mezze and a sharing platter for four. Starters are decent, if unremarkable. Falafel are crisp and hot, the lamb bourek well flavoured with but let down by a temperature issue in the middle. The flavours are there: it’s just that they haven’t given this batch quite enough time in the oil since making them by hand and refrigerating. There’s a proper wallop of garlic in the hummus and a spritely salad is laced with pomegranate molasses.
The main course banishes all reservations and all is forgiven. It’s a platter for four, which we calculate should be just enough for three hungry people.
We were wrong.
There’s a juicy, loosely packed lamb kofte which hits all the right herby-fatty notes: it’s flanked by boned-out chicken thighs, cubes of both lamb and chicken shish, and tender little lamb chops. It’s all very well executed, well enough to put the bourek issue to one side.
But the rice? Ah the rice…
I love it when something which is often just there as a formality ends up grabbing your attention above the headliners. Here, the rice steals the show- it’s lightly smoked, so on first try it’s rather good but by the eighth forkful you’re obsessed with the stuff. By the eleventh, you are willing to fight anyone who wants some.
It’s already buttery and a lovely al dente: bathing in the meat juices as we eat only improves it as the meal goes on.
We try some freshly-squeezed fruit juices too. We end up paying £17.10 a head, with more than we could eat and me babbling about the rice. The rice. The Rice…
Falafels would fit in very well to Cardiff’s City Road, where it would comfortably be among the best on that stretch. The grillwork at Falafilo Island can be recommended without reservation. was that good. And that rice? I had to be told- rather forcibly- to stop going on about it.
But it’s more than that: this is a story which needs to be celebrated, a story of how a country welcomed those in peril, and who in turn opened their doors and their table. I don’t understand nationalism, or even patriotism in the way many do. I don’t feel some welling-up of emotion when I cross the Severn Bridge, or when the rugby is on, or the anthem is sung. It doesn’t move me like it moves so many. But I do feel some pride to be part of a country which welcomes immigrants and allows them to prosper. As the son of an immigrant, you may accuse me of bias. I’m probably guilty. I don’t care.
Which is where we came in. It’s impressive, seeing that drive in young people who have lost everything- they are still just 23- and have worked hard to build a business and employ others.
So: here’s to that rice. here’s to that lamb. Here’s to small rays of optimism and kindness. And here’s to compassion. We seem to need those more than ever these days.
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.