Berenjak is a little restaurant in a hurry. Staff hurl themselves at you the moment you pass through its doors on Romilly Street, Soho, proffering tables and menus and returning approximately 30 seconds later to take your drink order. Food flies out of the kitchen. Drinks appear, are topped up, cleared away. It’s the fastest two course-meal of my life: beginning at 6.30pm and ending at 7.20pm with the words, “Shall I bring you your bill?” as the remnants of our meal are cleared.
However, Berenjak is a restaurant with a mission: it wants us to rethink the kebab, reimagine it as something subtle, something more than a digestif to several pints of lager. Opened in late October by chef Kian Samyani, it’s a ‘reinterpretation’ of the hole-in-the-wall Iranian kebab shop and, indeed, is named after the toasted rice dish you find served on the streets of Tehran. It has big-name backers: JKS Restaurants, the family group behind those other stars in the London foodie firmament Gymkhana and Brigadiers (at both of which Samyani has previously worked), among others.
The restaurant is a slip of a thing, long and thin and artfully distressed, with high stools on a bar surrounding the mangal grill and tanoor oven, and a line of tables running across the side and back. There are no reservations but, mercifully, we get a table away from the grill. It’s merciful, because it’s so hot I feel I’m being slow-cooked; we ask for the heat to be turned down several times. A more vigorous table of businessmen eventually succeed in getting the temperature dropped a notch.
The cheapest wine on the four-strong list is £28, so we settle for sweet Persian sodas ‘spiked’ with tequila. The menu is made for sharing and split into mazzeh (mezze), of which they suggest three each, kebabs and khoresht, the latter a type of stew. The first dish out is the omelette Irani, which has winning looks and the texture of rich, buttery scrambled eggs pricked with tomatoes and garlic. Then comes a pleasingly earthy hummus, made with black chickpeas and crowned with pieces of walnut, and a plate of jigar — strips of grilled calves’ liver that are so meltingly soft they could pass for fried foie gras. Both dishes are beautiful.
Next is the khoresht of guinea fowl legs, generously portioned and exquisitely cooked, the flesh falling from the bone into a rich barberry-flecked sauce. A minced goat kebab is a minor misstep: under-seasoned, though pleasant enough. And besides, the chenjeh kebab that follows is such a bounty, any disappointment evaporates: the lamb comes in huge chunks, beautifully charred and amply spiced. The saffron rice with goat butter and tadig is almost superfluous by this point. Still, we can’t resist the baklava ice cream sandwich — the only dessert on the menu. Alas, they have none left; it’s only 7.15pm. As I said, this is a restaurant in a hurry. Two-course dinner for two, with drinks and service, around £100.
As featured in Issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food.