A Christmas pudding with custard is an unlikely adjunct to a Sunday lunch at a restaurant trumpeting its allegiance to ‘Modern Middle Eastern-influenced dining and bar culture’, but then a main of plain roast lamb hardly counts as a shawarma either.
Yet who the hell cares about sticking exactly to the brief when both dishes taste so good? Michelin has been swift to recognise the talent of head chef Craig Rutherford and his Habas team, manifesting the long-term vision of Simon Shaw (below) to expand eastwards from his Iberian-inspired El Gato Negro and Canto.
The orangey, spicy pud was a seasonal special on a menu significantly short on turkey and sprouts, though the warm, exotically cluttered 200-cover basement would be ideal for a festive gathering without all the predictable trimmings.
Let’s call the Christmas pudding an honorary Levantine treat. After all, when the dish originated in the 14th century it was made with hulled wheat, boiled in milk, seasoned with cinnamon and coloured with saffron. Familiar spices from the Middle East to the fore and what started as a plain dish was soon augmented with mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, figs, ground almonds and further spices – savoury and sweet touches that feel decidedly Middle Eastern.
Lamb, not mutton, represents Habas’ Sabbath roast of choice for £17. Across the table it arrives as generous slices of seared half shoulder, tender and pink. The regional remit kicks in with the accompaniments. Labneh (creamy strained Greek yoghurt) brings a delicacy to cauliflower cheese, there’s a sticky oomph to the carrots thanks to sumac and orange honey, while the solid roasted spuds are lifted by black garlic and mint. Oh yes and thankfully not a Yorkshire pudding in sight.
Roasted squash and sautéed kale understandably replace cauli cheese as sides for my vegan alternative – harissa roasted cauliflower (£15). Sumac? Harissa? For those of you unfamiliar with the output of one Yotam Ottolenghi there’s a glossary prefix to the menu. Even I, a devotee of Persian dried black limes, barberries and golpar, have to double check what zhug is.
My daughter and I had kicked off with a £10.50 mezze platter that really did showcase the quest for authenticity that drove chef patron Simon Shaw’s recces in Lebanon and the cuisine-in-exile cafes of London. The hummus is as good as it gets with the baba ganoush and whipped labneh not far behind. The breads were less impressive, the toasted lavosh brittle, the tiny pittas and the flatbread hosting crumbled halloumi and za’atar (a separate dish for £4) lacking a certain fluffiness.
Maybe Habas suffers in comparison with London big hitters in the field such as Palomar or Barbary but it has settled into the groove it promised. Likewise stablemate Canto in Ancoats, whose initial promise was Portuguese cuisine but which had to swiftly recalibrate as ‘Mediterranean tapas’. I loved my return recently. There is no such miscomprehension, I feel, about this latest Shaw project in the old Panama Hatty’s site.
One guarantee at any of the restaurants: octopus will be done well. At Habas it was a toss-up for an ‘intermezzo’ between a long-standing fave, filo ‘cigars’ stuffed with feta cheese, wilted spinach and sunblush tomato, and the chargrilled octopus (£12), curled up inside a bed of smoked aubergine and tomato. Utterly gorgeous, it’s the kind of small plate, along with spot-on service, that must have impressed the Michelin inspectors inside five months of the restaurant (and its bolthole of a bar) opening. We’ll have to wait and see whether it will be garlanded with a Bib Gourmand like El Gato or a Plate like Canto. I suspect the latter.
It being lunchtime we snubbed the inviting bar and its cocktail list (Middle Eastern inspired naturally) in favour of a light red. Well, that was the plan. Our Ribas del Cúa Joven 2018 (£27) from Northern Spain offered a juicy riot of red and black fruits on nose and palate as you’d expect from the Mencia grape. As a Joven I anticipated it would be on the light side. Not so. 14.5 per cent, yet it didn’t feel a bruiser. Main supplier is the estimable Miles Corish of Milestone and all wines on the list are available by the glass in various sizes – apart from the show-off fizzes and the 1998 Chateau Musar, legendary red from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (one of the staging points on Simon Shaw’s journey towards Habas, as it happens.
£110 and the Musar is yours. Alternatively for Sunday lunch you may bring your own wine for just £5 corkage on all bottles. Another big plus from this obvious labour of love in difficult times. Fi sihtuk! (cheers in Arabic)
Habas, 43a Brown Street, Manchester M2 2JJJ. 0161 470 9375. Monday-Sunday 12pm-late; food service until 10pm.