I grew up eating the food of the Middle East. I recall fondly the roasting smells of skewered meat on grills, the sight of plump rotisserie chickens advertising themselves outside restaurants, the gargantuan cones of shawarma, lamb and chicken, dripping with fat, inviting you lasciviously. The luscious mezzes, the crisp kibbehs and falafels, a childhood slathered in hummus and muttabel, bathed in muhammara and rich tagines.
The feasts at iftaar parties, at weddings, at Eid celebrations, the cooking of my one Emirati friend’s mum when we stayed over at his house. Freshly stewed goat, biriyani, mountains of sabzi and kabsa and maqluba, every kind of kebab possible, unleavened bread and tossed salads. I can almost smell the sweet scent of umm ali for dessert, creamy rich umm ali, or a plate of ecstatically syrupy and cheesy kunafa, a pyramid luqaimat, and the steamy tendrils arising from an ornate metal dallah filled with hot unmistakeable qahwah (Arabic coffee).
I remember going to mathematics tutorials only because underneath my tutor’s building was the best manakish vendor in the city. Flatbread fresh out the oven, bubbling with cheese, or dusted with zaatar, or bubbling with cheese and then dusted with zaatar, or with meat and cheese and zaatar – the stuff of dreams.
Going to a Middle Eastern restaurant, whether it be Turkish, Lebanese, Moroccan or Iranian feels comfortable and familiar. My years in Dubai have made me feel odd when people suggest the exoticism of these cuisines. It is food I ate with my hands, plates that I shared, that I enjoyed with people I held and still hold dear. The middle east was where my passion for gastronomy began.
Visiting Coal Office was to be a homecoming of sorts. I had not been back to Dubai in over a year and I was craving a piece of my childhood. I had just finished my Masters course and was about to tiptoe into the next phase of my life, so I suppose I desired some comfort, the kind only good food could give me.
The Coal Office restaurant is sleek, metallic almost. Its stony lustre is contrasted by brick walls that match the unadorned exterior that harkens back to its original use as a coal office. The open kitchen is long. Chefs work busily and expertly along it, shouting orders and sending out dishes in chipped black clay plates (I kid, not all plates are chipped, just mine on the day – no harm was done).
It is a beautiful restaurant. Tom Dixon’s Melt Pendant Lights that hang over tables draw my attention in moments of silence. They shimmer and gleam like smooth glacial ice, mirroring and distorting light in an enchanting static performance. They are unique and hypnotic and strangely appropriate.
Maddy and I are served by a suave older gentleman that speaks slowly and precisely with an accent I cannot quite place. He asks us if we would like him to explain the menu to us, to which we agree, specifying that we were mostly interested in the vegetarian options. He goes through them one by one, with slow luxuriance. I could feel myself begin to salivate, being primed for the culinary performance by his voice, the manner with which he seemed earnestly excited for us, for what was about to take place at Coal Office.
The zaatar manakish was not like any I have tried before. It was rounded and fluffy, with only a light dust of zaatar sprinkled on top. Even the msabaha that came with it was different. More of a stew of onions and chickpeas than a cool side dish. This deviation did not take away anything however. The warm bread, letting out steam upon being torn, merged well with the mild spices and waxy texture of the msabaha.
Another bread dish came next, a kubalah, a structure of light and shiny brioche in a thick yet light knot, made to be torn and dipped in a sauce of reduced creamy yoghurt and tomato confit, flavoured with oregano.
The first of our two small plates at Coal Office was the josperized aubergine (cooked in a Josper oven that includes both a grill and an oven), spread on a plate like thin carpaccio slices, sprinkled with mint, pistachios, pomegranate seeds, blueberries, and lashings of green tahini. The aubergine is silky, cool and scrumptious.
The second small plate is Machneyuda’s polenta, a dish hailing from Jerusalem, that comes in a pot filled with soft mushrooms and thick asparagus in a smooth mixture of parmesan enriched polenta. Black truffle is brought to the table and shaved generously atop the mixture. You can smell its deep, complex aroma from where you sit. The polenta, made more lavish and sumptuous by it being cooked with cream rather than water, ascends to an orgiastic height with the addition of entrancing truffles. The dish is deliriously good, making us hum wistfully with every mouthful.
For mains, we have the Shish Barak and the Midnight Shawarma, both names equally intriguing and appetising in their own way. The shish barak is a dish of dumplings from East Jerusalem, dumplings sometimes called joshpara in the places I have eaten them in Dubai. They are bathed in a dulcet yoghurt sauce, speckled with pine nuts and streaks of wilted greens. Before we dig in, our waiter comes with a stone about the size of truffle, but tells us it is a sundried mound of yoghurt brought from abroad especially to be grated onto the shish barak. Its gentle sourness adds another layer to a dish that seems simple on the onset, but develops surprisingly on the palate.
The midnight shawarma has to be one of the most immorally indulgent dishes I have ever had. Tempting gelatinous bone marrow, intensely aromatic, comes in a charred foot-long halved bone, beside an unctuous hillock of lamb shawarma. Moreish fat oozes from every part of the plate, too much by far for the accompanying toast to be able to soak up. It is a meal for a tyrannical king, one who eats with careless and non-proprietary abandon and feels decadence to be his right. I embodied this persona as best I could and gorged on the monstrously delicious plate of food opposite my grimacing vegetarian girlfriend.
Deserts were a splendid bowl of coffee and chocolate mousse, artistically plated with blobs and brittles, and a creamy berry strewn malabi, a panna cotta-like dairy dessert, that Maddy and I thoroughly enjoyed. By then we were carried away by this restaurants magnificence, smiling widely and unashamedly at the waiter when he enquired about our meal at the end.
Coal Office is an irrefutable masterpiece from the décor to the cuisine, the place to go for exquisite Middle Eastern food whether you are familiar or not. For me, it was just where I needed to be, a stellar reminder of where I came from.
Location: 2 Bagley Walk, Kings Cross, London N1C 4PQ