Arabic Flavour, Aberystwyth: ‘Food that tells a story’ – restaurant review

<span>‘She has lived an awful lot of that life for someone still only in her mid-20s’: Ghofran Hamza.</span><span>Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer</span>
‘She has lived an awful lot of that life for someone still only in her mid-20s’: Ghofran Hamza.Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

Arabic Flavour, 4 Northgate Street, Aberystwyth SY23 2JS (01970 228 078). Starters and meze £4.75-£8.25, mains £14.50-£18.95, desserts £2.95-£7.75, wines from £21

Occasionally, during the wait for our starters at Arabic Flavour, one of us would pop off to the loo; a moment of magical thinking perhaps, in which a sudden absence from the table could somehow make the food arrive. They would stop by the kitchen door to sneak a look in through the window, willing there to be more people in there. Perhaps the rest of the brigade had simply popped out when last we looked. But no, there really was just one person in that kitchen doing everything: the compact, completely focused and utterly poised figure of Ghofran Hamza, the young Syrian refugee by way of Lebanon, who is determined to tell her 21st-century story at the stove. The lack of kitchen personnel means a dinner at Arabic Flavour is unlikely to be quick. Do not go ravenously hungry. Prepare a few conversational gambits. Perhaps do not go in a large group. But really, do go.

Hamza grew up in a Syrian village on the Turkish border, where her father worked as a greengrocer. In 2012, as opposition protests turned to vicious civil war, the family fled Syria for Lebanon and a life of hardship lived on the margins of society. Eventually, they were offered a place on a UN refugee resettlement programme and in 2018 arrived here in the very west of Wales, where the land runs out. It was, she has said, a disconcerting experience of layered culture shocks. To cope with it, she and her mother came together with other Syrian refugees in Aberystwyth to create the Syrian Dinner Project, a series of supper clubs that both secured a cultural connection to their past and raised funds for local Syrian families trying to find their feet in the present.

Arabic Flavour, which she runs with her Greek partner, was meant to open early in 2020. A pandemic saw to that. The doors were eventually unlocked in March 2021. It is now a quietly elegant space of guttering tea lights and sandstone-coloured walls hung with bursts of Arabic art. That said, if you just glanced at the menu, you might assume this was a cheery Greek place; somewhere to recreate sunkissed holiday memories of dinners by the harbourside, picking at plates of calamari with the scent of retsina and Ambre Solaire on the breeze. And deeply beloved all of that is, too.

But there is much more going on here. It is cooking that traces a journey, from dish to dish, from one life to another. Hamza has lived an awful lot of that life for someone still only in her mid-20s. Dish names may be familiar. There is baba ganoush, tabbouleh and falafel. But that baba ganoush has a cave depth of smokiness and with it are folds of warm flatbread dusted with the sweetest and smokiest of paprikas. The tabbouleh is the expected mix of chopped flatleaf parsley, cracked wheat and diced tomato, but there’s a sharpness to the salt-sour dressing that turns it into a friendly slap around the chops. Later, Hamza will tell us that all the tahini and spices make the long journey from London, because she can’t get the quality she needs close by. She’s building a particular pantry to help her introduce us to these, her family’s memories.

Much of the food here is rich with the sweet and sour of pomegranate molasses, and the jewel-like shine of pomegranate seeds. There are dappled pools of an olive oil so virgin it has never even had an indecent thought, alongside the airiness of fresh coriander and the caramel tones of long-cooked onions. Roasted cashews are applied liberally because they make everything look cheerier. Salads come sprinkled with the raunchy purple citrus of sumac, while her hot, springy falafel puffs wafts of newly roasted cumin seed at us. Most diverting is the hummus fatteh, a dish of whole chickpeas bound in a garlicky tahini sauce. Fragments of crisp, just-fried pitta have been stirred through it all.

Among the mains is a dish described as a chicken biryani. It’s a name chosen for convenience rather than because it actually tells you anything revealing beyond the fact that it involves rice and chicken in a pot. It is Lebanese, our waiter says, before adding that it has nothing to do with India. Quite so. It is soupier and thicker than an Indian biryani, and steamy with cinnamon and sweet warmth. It’s a dish for a cool rainy night like this one. It is food engineered for this part of the Welsh coast, where bullish, rain-heavy fronts are forever on the approach. As is a pot of long-cooked beef in orzo, the rice-shaped pasta, which is apparently part of the Greek column, alongside the meat-free moussaka. That is stratified with layers of potato, aubergine, courgette and comfort, like someone wants to put a knitted blanket across your knees and tell you everything will be just fine.

We have a heap of caramel-coloured chicken shawarma, blousy with more cinnamon, paprika and cumin, and a crisped fillet of seabass, under a spiced sauce sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Both come with Hamza’s roast potatoes, which are dark on account of having been shown a very good time by that raucous spice collection. Perhaps it’s the wait and the relief that accompanies the arrival of long-anticipated food (straight after my trip to the loo; hooray, my magical thinking worked), but there’s something deeply emotional and intense about this cooking. It’s helped by the hugely entertaining service, by a waiter on her first day in the job. She begins quietly, but quickly relaxes and tells us about her many siblings and her weightlifting routines, which she reckons could come in handy with the plate clearing.

There are Greek and Lebanese wines on the list, alongside a beer from Tenby Brewery and many gins, rums and whiskies. Usually, at restaurants like this, the one element that is bought-in are the pastries. Not here. Tonight, Hamza only has her fat triangles of baklava. At first, they are crisp and then soft, and sticky with syrup and toasty nuts, and a foaming ocean away from those dusty, tensed examples that usually turn up. She apologises that she doesn’t have any others to offer. She simply didn’t have time to make them. It’s more than forgivable. There’s only so much one person can do, and by God, she’s already doing it. I do hope she finds someone to give her a hand. Hamza deserves an easier time of things, and her delightful cooking deserves a wider audience.

News bites

A great opportunity for a confused night out has arisen with the announcement of the opening at the end of this month of Metropolis London, a new street food venue which will occupy railway arches on the Victoria Embankment at Vauxhall. The food offering will include Mexican from Birria Tacos, Sri Lankan from Karapincha and Uzbekistan noodles and dumplings from OshPaz, alongside live music, cabaret and LGTBQ+ friendly events. The potential confusion arises because there’s already a place which, online, calls itself Metropolis London. That’s a strip club out east on the Cambridge Heath Road. The website of the new Vauxhall one is offering ‘Food Porn’. You have been warned. Find out more about the food one here.

The Barrie brothers, who closed their Liverpool restaurant Lerpwl last year due to a rent dispute, are to reopen Marram Grass, the Anglesey restaurant on their parent’s caravan park where it all started. The new Y Marram will start with guest chef events, including with Romy Gill, Tony Singh and Jeremy Pang, but will quickly move to a daily offering. Find out more here.

Chef Alex Claridge, of Birmingham restaurant The Wilderness, is to launch a new venture in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, serving a 12-course tasting menu to just 14 people. It will be called Albatross Death Cult, ‘but we’ll allow people just to call it Albatross,’ he told The name was chosen, he has said, because he has had the space for a year without knowing what to do with it until it became the proverbial ‘albatross around my neck.’ The menu will feature seafood dishes which ‘smack you in the face like ocean spray.’

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