I’d travel anywhere for a good babka. Anywhere my Oyster card can take me, for a start. Perhaps even further – I’ll take any opportunity to go back to New York City, where I tried it for the first time (at Breads Bakery, no less). Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where different versions of it are part of culinary tradition, are not yet a definite plan, but who knows: I’m young enough to dream of visiting a lot more new countries in the next five or ten years.
This time, I haven’t had to look any further than Clapham, once a mandatory stopover on a dreary daily commute, now a corner of London I hardly visit anymore. The lure of babka was more compelling than the handfuls of restaurants and cafes I’ve bookmarked over the years, wondering which of them, if any, would convince me to take the damned Overground from Shepherd’s Bush again. The likes of The Dairy, Tart, MILK and Breads Etcetera all feature on that list, but finally, it was The King & Co. I first visited them last year, intrigued by Bah Bah’s Persian pop-up, and this October’s Iraqi residency by JUMA Kitchen caught my Middle Eastern food fiend’s interest just as much.
Talk about the power of social media: the thought of erasing them from my life crosses my mind, but if it wasn’t for Twitter, I’d have no idea JUMA offered babka as a weekend brunch special. Within half an hour of seeing the fateful tweet, my partner in crime and I had booked a table and were seated on the Overground my nightmares are made of. Within an hour, settled at the King & Co, we’d eyed up dishes we’d never tried before, and realised the brunch excited us even more than the all-day menu (which features many recipes we know and love, but haven’t seeked out at restaurants very often since Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana entered our lives).
The food choices looked novel for a reason. English-Irish-Iraqi chef Philip Juma focused on bringing together traditional Middle Eastern and modern European cuisine, and that’s especially evident in the brunch menu, where herbs, nuts and dried fruit meet British staples like poached eggs, fluffy pancakes and fried bacon. The all-day selection plays it safer: if you’re familiar with Middle Eastern food, you’ll find little you haven’t already heard of, and if you’re a novice, you’ll have a solid selection of classics to start out from.
One of the mains we shared was a large, round tanoor bread, topped with bacon, a fried egg, and tamarind and date sauce. Happy as I am to have tried it, I can’t help thinking it calls for warm bread: cold as ours came, it lost much of its appeal, and only gained in flavour when we drenched it in sauce. The sweetness of date and tamarind is the best thing about this dish, so much that I didn’t mind it stealing the show: aside from giving the bread a much-needed kick, it prevailed over the egg and bacon too. The other flavour you’ll spot is a refreshing herby note. It’s something I’ve had before, and spent all of yesterday trying to name; the stickler in me needs to solve the mystery, but might have to admit defeat, and accept having stumbled upon an elusive secret ingredient.
The Iraqi-British pairing works far better with the potato chap (potato fritters with a lamb and herb filling, served with poached eggs). The eggs and fritters are served separately, so you can choose whether to eat them in the same forkful, or savour them one by one. Either way, you can’t go wrong. The ingredients blend well, with no overpowering flavours, and scooping up the egg yolk with a morsel of mashed potato is a gluttonous pleasure. If you’re not up for mixing them, on the other hand, you’ll find the potato chap are perfectly formed on their own, from the crisp, evenly fried outer shell to the thick layer of mashed potato encasing the minced lamb.
It’s easy to save the best till last, when dessert is the undisputed highlight of a meal: everything about JUMA’s chocolate, hazelnut and cardamom babka was spot-on. I loved the rich, tightly braided dough, and the nut chunks wedged between layers. The unexpected touch of sweetness of the chocolate, not overly dark, strikingly reminiscent of hazelnut spread. The cardamom in the filling, a delicate touch of class. I could have hated the mains, and still have left The King & Co with a happy face, thanks to the babka alone.
At £3.50, it’s incredibly good value, especially if you consider the other sweet brunch dishes cost twice as much, and know how much time and effort it takes to make it (probably the reason it’s not on the regular menu). The portion, too, is more than fulfilling, and can lend itself to sharing if you’re already stuffed: serve less of it, and you’ll have a petit four rather than a dessert; serve more, and it’ll become sheer overkill after a main course. I consider it a real gem, a perfect example of the affordable quality food I wish I saw more of in London. I clearly wasn’t the only one, as the portion I got was the last one available, more than an hour before the end of the brunch slot.
Kitchen hours for JUMA Kitchen (until Sunday 30 October 2016):
- Monday – Friday: 17.00–22.00
- Saturday: 12.00–22.00
- Sunday: 12.00–20.00
- Brunch served between 12.00 – 16.00 Saturday and Sunday