Berenjak Soho, 27 Romilly St, London W1D 5AL

- Review -

Berenjak Soho: A Culinary Game of Fuck or Die Pays Off

I’ve made a habit of living in tourist cities. Born and bred in Bristol, studying at Bath (Spa - not the good one) where being a resident felt like living in a painting. Brighton, where people roleplay the life of a serf or troubadour, periodically returning to one of mummy and daddy's provincial bolt-holes to dry out and convalesce among the vineyards; then finally London, which is arguably a heady blend of all three.

Soho contains many traditional bucket list restaurants, which is also the reason I’m apprehensive about bothering with it whatsoever. Getting caught in the tourist melee when I already despise people as it is, is almost enough to put me off the pursuit of stuffing my gills entirely. But of course, not quite.

The more nihilistically promiscuous among us might remember the 'game' 'Paratrooper' perhaps more widely-known as ‘Fuck or Die’ — a strategy used at festivals where you’d go with nothing but the clothes on your back, in the hopes of discarding them later in a strangers tent, trading your self-respect, mental and physical health for a place to stay that night. Although I never partook because I hate music festivals for their fetishisation of medieval siege conditions, suddenly finding yourself in Soho with low blood sugar must be a close approximation.

"...they swarm like bidders in a 1980s stock exchange, with Little John telling them when and where they can put their money"

Just a tactical image of the saffron buttered rice, mast o khia, mast o musir & torshi phel phel to give you a break from the scorn and hopeful spur you on to stay with me

With spontaneity at the core of almost every good time our pal suggests Berenjak, where a lone member of staff armed with an iPad rather than the quarterstaff our Little John so sorely needs, guards the doorway. Physically putting his body between the restaurant and a mob of punters, they swarm like bidders in a 1980s stock exchange, with Our Hero telling them when and where they can put their money. A couple arrive 40 minutes late with the temerity to be annoyed that their table has since been given away, made all the more hilarious by the fact they’d booked the Borough Market location instead.

"A hillock of black chickpea hummus..scoops like Sabra — that one dip you bring to a party as a weird powerplay"

Lining the outside is what my late grandmother would sweetly describe as ‘a raft of total cunts’; each donning a baseball cap, trench coat and sunglasses as if the Paparazzi — or quite literally anybody — knows or cares who they are. Systematically ignoring the requests of staff to move along to free up space for others or move their plates, they give off the energy of fully-developed brats who have never had to do anything they don’t want to. One actually ‘shoos’ away a barely-touched plate of lamb sweetbreads to a waiter, her batting hand and averted gaze telling you all you need to know. These people are the enemy.

Inside, Berenjak has the trendy blend of exposed air vents and brickwork, the latter of which looks genuinely knackered and it's not clear as to whether it's load-bearing, despite hipster curb appeal. The open kitchen is a kebabby that’s seen serious investment; the walls are clad in brushed steel and kitted with the sort of vents that would have EHO nodding and ticking.

A hubcap and raft of selected carbs

A basket carrying an inflated sesame-seeded hubcap of a taftoon drifts down, with a wholewheat sangak dimpled with leoparding from the pebbles over which it’s cooked and its name derives. A hillock of black chickpea hummus that’s righteously slick with tahini, scoops like Sabra — that one dip you bring to a party as a weird powerplay. It's as close as you can get to a savoury ganache and I’m being held back from ordering more because of ‘moderation’. I know — it's pathetic.

Just refit my taps with the stuff

Char-speckled cobs of corn are turfed with finely sliced chives, adhered to by the glacially dissipating globs of butter. A wedge of lemon racked with sumac is a great way of delivering a scythe to the fat in a single squeeze. Buttery still is the saffron rice spiked with crispy rice, which I assume is a beige nod to the Berejak's namesake. Emollient splays of mast o khia and mast o musir offer refreshing pitstops and a foil to the torshi phel phel; a bitter pulp of green chillies that have been blackened and blitzed without killing off all the chlorophyll.

"dutifully mottled and pouting with succulence"

Nowhere near as annoying as you think

The Jujeh kabab — hulking chunks of chicken a deep amber from the saffron and yoghurt marinade is dutifully mottled and pouting with succulence. It’s expertly cooked and I’ll admit my surprise because, given the postcode, they could be forgiven for half-arsing this whole thing. Slumped with a scorched tomato that actually tastes like one and green chillies that boast Scovilles, the residual juices are captured by the sangak mattress beneath.

"...cold and in the bin, where these wretched amoebas should be instead."

More juice than Susan's watercooler talk of a Monday

The Koobideh kabab is served with it to save the KP a job, sporting a rifling of thorough caramelisation sealing in a lightly loose texture where the pockets of fat have rendered. This all goes some way to making up for the fact that the lamb sweetbreads have sold out and my head spins a la The Exorcist, to see the bratpack still there, posing for selfie retakes; their sweetbreads cold and in the bin, where these wretched amoebas should be instead.

Acutely aware that our allotted 1hr 30mins has elapsed, we make a move and I can't help recalling what my bass tutor used to tell me: “A groove’s a groove” and this so keenly applies to Berenjak. Whilst finding esotericism in restaurants is a constant, it’s also a side quest because good food is good food. Is £19.50 a lot for a chicken kebab? Maybe, but a sense of value has to be gauged with other factors at play, in what I can only assume is coined ‘Goldilocks Theory’ which is ultimately governed by whether was it cooked well, do I regret spending life tokens on the ride and would I go again. The answer for Berejak is a solid ‘probably’. Hopefully by then the staff with be armed with, and insulated from the legalities of using, quarterstaffs (or cattle prods).