Bubala: the home of Middle Eastern vegetarian magic

Bubala: the home of Middle Eastern vegetarian magic

by Great British Chefs 06 February 2020

After opening in September 2019, Bubala in Spitalfields, London, has quickly become the darling of critics and food-lovers alike. Take a look at how founder Marc Summers and head chef Helen Graham made the debut restaurant such a smash hit, then try making some of the signature dishes at home.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Ever since Yotam Ottolenghi introduced British home cooks to the delights of tahini, harissa and preserved lemons, Middle Eastern ingredients and flavours have become a mainstay of dinner parties across the UK. What was once a cuisine defined by hummus and kebabs has rapidly become one of our favourites, with fragrant baharat, sweet date syrups and lemony sumac going from unknown oddities to store cupboard staples.

While home cooks leaf through the pages of Ottolenghi’s latest when deciding what to prepare when entertaining, restaurants have showcased the delights of this vast region’s cuisine even more. London in particular is where you’ll find some of the best – the likes of Berber & Q, The Palomar, Arabica and Honey & Co have paved the way for accomplished, high-end Middle Eastern cooking in the best way possible.

The latest restaurant to join the stable of successful Middle Eastern restaurants is Bubala, just down the road from London’s Spitalfields Market. The most obvious thing that sets it apart from the rest is that it’s entirely vegetarian – no kibbeh or shawarma in sight – and that while the focus is on Middle Eastern flavours, there’s a healthy dose of Mediterranean, Israeli and Jewish (hence the name) influences in there too.

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With Marc Summers at the helm (ex-general manager of Berber & Q) and head chef Helen Graham in the kitchen (previously of The Palomar, The Barbary and The Good Egg), there are few duos better suited to opening a restaurant of this ilk. To write off Bubala as a restaurant for vegetarians, however, would be foolish – with such in-your-face, rich and deep flavours thanks to Helen’s skill in the kitchen, the lack of any meat or fish isn’t an issue for even the most dedicated carnivore.

‘I’d been working on the concept for Bubala for about six months before teaming up with Helen,’ says Marc. ‘I actually found her on Facebook! We did our first pop-up together in October 2018, and by July 2019 we had the keys to this place.’

Opening a vegetarian restaurant as little as five years ago would have been a bold move, but as the UK increasingly embraces vegetarianism and starts to treat vegetables as ingredients in their own right rather than sides or accompaniments to meat and fish, it made sense to Marc and Helen to keep things veggie.

‘We’d had enough with dealing with meat on a daily basis – sticking to vegetarian dishes means everything feels a lot more hygienic in the kitchen and it’s a nicer environment to be in,’ explains Marc. ‘Helen was getting a bit tired of seeing the amount of waste that can come with cooking meat in a restaurant too, so it was something we were both keen to focus on.’

A look at Bubala’s menu shows a distinct Middle Eastern focus – the usual suspects of hummus, labneh and falafel certainly set the scene – but that’s not the sole inspiration for the food on offer. ‘We’ve been inspired by our backgrounds and heritage too,’ says Marc. ‘There are a couple of Jewish things on the menu, which reflects the area we’re in – 100 years ago Spitalfields was very Jewish. My grandfather was born here, as was Helen’s grandmother, so the location means a lot. It took a long time to find the right location for Bubala, but when we found this place we knew we had to go for it.’

Because Marc and Helen had been working on the menu for Bubala for two years prior, they were able to open the restaurant pretty speedily. As it was their first restaurant, they worked towards a tight budget to get the décor and kitchen up to scratch, but managed to open just three months after getting the keys to the building.

‘I don’t think anything can prepare you for the amount of work that’s required to open a restaurant,’ says Marc. ‘The first night was a bit of a disaster – although the customers didn’t notice – because we stupidly put our coffee machine on top of all our electrics. Water ended up going everywhere and we were having to write all the checks and run them down to the kitchen. Our opening week was all a bit of a blur, but we’re settled now and just trying to improve every aspect of what we do.’

Coffee machine mishaps aside, Bubala proved an instant hit, with the likes of Marina O’Laughlin, Jay Rayner and Jimi Famurewa giving it glowing reviews in quick succession. ‘Because we’re such a small restaurant you really notice the impact those reviews have – bookings just surged afterwards,’ says Marc. ‘Especially the Jay Rayner one – that came out just after Christmas and meant January, which is usually pretty quiet for restaurants, was really, really busy.’

With big, bold dishes accentuated with plenty of smoke from Helen’s small-but-effective Japanese konro barbecue in the kitchen, affordable prices and plenty of ingredients and flavours from the cuisines of the Middle East, Israel and the Mediterranean, it’s no wonder Bubala has become such a hit. Marc and Helen are obviously a very effective team, and are about to launch a new brunch menu and make the most of their private dining room. The fact that the restaurant only serves vegetarian dishes isn’t what defines Bubala; it’s the confident cooking, laidback vibe and accessibility of the menu. Stop in for a few small plates or go all-in with the Bubala Knows Best £30 set menu – either way, you’re in for a treat.