In 1951 Carson McCullers wrote a novella called The Ballad of the Sad Café. As I walked today along Great Titchfield Street (I write this in the middle of the second lockdown) that title came into my mind. We have been so lucky with our local restaurants and cafes (and with the weather) over the early autumn: outside eating and drinking, cheery staff, safety measures in place everywhere.
And now? Maybe one member of staff still working stands at café doorways in empty streets: “TakeAwayOnly”.
A Dining Detective in these troubled times can only try to be hopeful, like the restaurant and café owners and staff, and so, “hopefully”, by the time you are reading this we are somehow in a safer situation and maybe the sad cafes will be properly open again.
Towards the end of the summer I did find one excellent restaurant in Fitzrovia that I didn’t know called KIBELE. Unfortunately, even during EAT OUT TO HELP OUT (or EAT OUT AND SPREAD THE VIRUS as some call it now), it was hard for the bill to come in at no more than my £35.00 pp rule. However, once I saw how generous the servings of the wonderful starters were, and realised that 2-3 of those plus a glass or two of one of their pleasant wines by the glass (£6-£8) could make a satisfying meal within budget, back I went. Several times! Eating outside when the weather permitted.
The restaurant, with its extremely pleasant and efficient staff, is Turkish (on the site of the old Effes II). Regular readers will know how I loved the original Effes in Great Titchfield Street. But Kibele is different. If I say it is more sophisticated, with more delicate tastes, that just sounds like “more expensive and la-di-dah.” But it is something else about the food — maybe more Greek influence.
As soon as the various tiers of lockdown began, Kibele went to a lot of trouble to make guests feel safe eating inside, and several times I encouraged friends to sit in a shielded-off banquette, served by those very pleasant waiters wearing either masks or plastic shields. (And just said to my friends, when they saw me with a little notebook, that I was making notes for another friend: ie you, my reader!)
First of all, those aforementioned, generously-portioned starters. Various kinds of humus including a gourmet humus which was topped with sukuk and pastrima (£6.90) but I prefer the excellent plain humus which tastes so much creamier and tastier than what you buy in a shop. The borek – thin filo pastry filled with spinach and Turkish feta, slightly warm, is delicious (£7.50) Grilled Hellim (Cypriot haloumi) £7.50. And — to die for almost as far as I am concerned but one should be very careful about saying that in these dangerous times — the starter of Grilled King Prawns, warm, delicately marinated in ginger and garlic and turmeric — two skewers, each holding four or five large prawns grilled over charcoal (as is all the cooking) (£9.90)
On the mains menu there are of course all the usual Turkish lamb and chicken dishes, with the King Prawns appearing again: shish, and skewers — I noticed they never use the word ‘kebab’ — but also lamb cutlets and ribs, seabass fillets, salmon, chicken on the bone, and chicken wings. All grilled on charcoal and served with rice and salad. The prices are all between £15 and £20, (a bit more for the prawns). A particular favourite of mine is the Mediterranean Chicken Wings (£14.90) They are indeed more expensive than Kentucky Fried, but they are indeed — to my taste — more delicious. (I like Kentucky Fried Chicken as well though!)
I haven’t had a salad yet — but there are three enticing ones for £15 — Grilled Chicken and Walnut, Goats Cheese and Honey Glazed Fig, and those Grilled Prawns again.
There are also “House Home Comforts”: Manti — Turkish style dumplings (£16.90) and Incik — braised lamb shanks (£21.90). One friend enjoys most of all the House Special, the Kibele Mixed Grill (which is a combination of all the grilled choices £21.90)
But Vegetarians and Vegans: there is a whole menu for you, apart from the vegetarian starters I already mentioned. Dishes like Falafal (Fava bean and chickpea Vegetable fritters) as a starter (£7.50) or as a main (£14.90). Baked artichoke hearts filled with courgettes, carrots, peppers (Enginer: 15.90). Vegetable Stew (£15.90).
And there is much use of pomegranate molasses in many of the dishes.
They also do takeaways — and were one of the very few local restaurants trying to keep open over the second lockdown. With lights shining, and flowers, trying not to look sad at all.
I loved going to Kibele. But — without the company of the much-missed editor of this paper, Mike Pentelow, with whom to contrast and compare as I wrote my discreet notes, it was different somehow, this Secret Dining Detective lark. After very many years I think I just might hand over the job. But you’ll never know if I do.
Because it is a secret.
Kibele Restaurant and Bar, 175 Great Portland Street, W1W 5PJ.