Shekha and Jack try the latest opening from Ceru which continues to impress with its sprightly, fresh flavours…
Ceru’s food lends itself to a variety of occasions but big groups getting everything to share is probably the most satisfying way of eating it.
Vegans and Vegetarians – there is plenty to choose from for a healthy, delicious meal, in fact, most of the menu is veggie.
Those adopting gluten-free – the entire menu purports to be gluten free which is quite special!
In a Word
This is the second branch of the hugely successful Ceru family, which started as a pop-up and found a permanent home in South Kensington in 2016, to rave reviews. Entering off of a narrow Soho street, it is easy to see why. The uniquely decorated interior transports us immediately away from London and into the streets of Beirut or Nicosia.
The space is deceptively large, stretching all the way back to an open kitchen where chefs busy themselves preparing a variety of delicious morsels. A bar on the right is energetic with mixologists and, taking pride of place, is a splendid teal coffee machine. Like the coffee machine, there are pops of colour everywhere – yellow and teal accents which liven up the venue with playful flair.
The overall effect works beautifully with the concrete walls, textured like the stone ruins of an old desert town. Together with carved wooden lattices, colourful tiles and a large map of the Levant region, painted outside on the adjacent building – but visible through a magnificent glass wall – there is a lively and chic mix of traditional and contemporary features.
The tables are full with families and friends and the dim lights give an intimate vibe, as if we have been invited over to dinner at a friend’s auntie’s house for a special occasion – and the whole of the extended family have swung by too – like one of those feasting scenes so common in Rick Stein or Anthony Bourdain programmes.
Even more so, as husband and wife duo, and Ceru founders, Barry and Patricia Hilton, go from table to table, talking to diners and recommending dishes. The restaurant’s food is inspired by the Hilton’s travels around the Levant, and their passion is palpable.
I start with a vibrant pink cocktail, served with (I am pleased to note) a paper straw, with white and teal stripes. The drink, Trouble in Paradise, is a zingy mix of gin and Campari dryness, tempered with lemon and elderflower.
My companion has a beer, Ceru’s own brand pale ale, a gluten- and dairy-free beer brewed by Hop Kettle Brewery which is very nice. Lebanese Almaza is also available, along with a selection of wines.
We opt to start with all of the dips, served with springy spread, ideal for mopping up all the flavours. We try a full portion of the vibrant magenta pancar, a beetroot dip with yoghurt, garlic and pistachio. The earthy sweetness of the beetroot is given depth by the warmth of cinnamon and a faint hint of pistachio aftertaste. The flavours remind us of the zesty aromas of Christmas and mulled wine.
The hummus is some of the best I have tried – warm, nutty version, sparkling with lemon. While the fadi, a courgette, garlic and tahini dip, is one of my favourites, imbued with a gorgeous smokiness. Not to be overlooked, hammara, a Syrian dip, is vibrant with flavour, humming with red pepper, savoury walnut and sour pomegranate molasses.
Karides come next, fat and juicy prawns flecked with char, though my companion thinks they are missing something, I enjoy the sweet, almost buttery taste of them. The accompanying labneh is light and enjoyable with an undertone of lime.
The slow roasted lamb shoulder is outstanding, achingly soft tendrils of gently spiced meat, with a pleasant tart sweetness from pomegranate molasses. The mint, pomegranate and pistachio garnish not only looks like a treasure chest but adds some lovely textual variety too. We enjoy eating this with a side of the orez ceru, an Arabic rice, fragrant with caramel crispy onions and sultanas which complement the flavours in the lamb perfectly.
A side of polenta and feta fries is an indulgence which still feels quite healthy; the fries are as wide as two of my fingers but still delightfully crispy and light with a lingering saltiness of the cheese. This is perfectly cut with a salad of mint, apple and pomegranate. For me, the salad is a highlight of the meal. The red apple is perfect, thinly sliced but crunchy and juicy at the same time, while cooling mint and sour-sweet rubies of pomegranate vie for attention on the palate. The delicate spring taste of pea shoots and savoury pine nuts are faintly detectable, adding yet a further layer to this simple, yet delicious plate.
At this point, we are too full for dessert, although I promise honey and cardamom panna cotta I will return for it. Baklava comes anyway, with our digestifs. I go for the ‘spiked’ Turkish apple tea which is pepped up with Morgan’s spiced rum. The only dud of the meal – it is teeth-clenchingly sweet – but it does warm me up nicely for the road home.
I have had my fair share of mezze-style dishes and interpretations of eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours. But this is a far cry from sub-par mixed grills, dry pitta and bland hummus. The food here is truly exciting and inclusive, catering to a variety of dietary requirements. The modern and fun interpretations still stay true to traditional flavours with a focus on quality ingredients and brilliant execution which just takes everything to the next level. As a result, the dishes feel fresh, vibrant and energetic, and this is infectious. We leave feeling excited to explore the rest of the menu and with such excellent value for money, I can see this becoming a regular haunt.
11 D’Arblay Street, W1