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Jimi Famurewa reviews Al Kahf: Nirvana of truly unforgettable Somali food hidden in the unlikeliest of places

A prize: Al Kahf is hidden away, but worth seeking out  (Matt Writtle)
A prize: Al Kahf is hidden away, but worth seeking out (Matt Writtle)

The first thing to know about Al Kahf, a basement Somali spot in Whitechapel, is that it very much operates on its own terms. Where much of the city’s restaurant landscape is defined by pomp and guest appeasement — by alluring decor and resting pedestals for weary handbags — attempting to eat here can, at times, feel like negotiating an obstacle course of hazards and discouragements. Waiters tap orders into their phones and can be hard to flag down (or identify); opening hours are so capricious that I have twice arrived to find the place mysteriously shut; and, up until a recent major refurbishment, the sole access point was a side door down a rubbish-strewn, darkened alleyway that did not look like the most likely pathway to dining nirvana.

But then, once you have navigated all these potential deterrents, what you are left with is the prize of something truly remarkable. Which is to say, a hidden grotto of home-style East African cooking that spikes endorphins, costs next to nothing and is only intensified by the lightly confounding, clandestine nature of its surrounding context. Because that is the second thing to know about Al Kahf. Though it may not look like much, I genuinely think it may be serving what is, pound-for-downturn-pound, some of the most viscerally brilliant food in the capital.

This is a drum that I have been wanting to bang for a while. Tipped off late last year about the hush-hush cult around Al Kahf (which means “cave” in Arabic), I went along and was duly blown away. But then, upon hearing that a major expansion and spruce-up was planned for early this year, I held off. Well, a few months and some inevitable construction delays later, the rebooted restaurant is finally here. The changes feel both seismic (the once permanently shuttered street-level space has been opened up to reveal a proper entrance and large new dining room) and subtle (they’ve sprayed some metal supporting columns gold).

The menu is short and, to those unfamiliar with the commingled food cultures of the Horn of Africa, perhaps outwardly idiosyncratic. There is biryani, lavishly-sauced spaghetti (a vestige of Italian colonial rule in Somalia), and griddle-warm sabaayad (flatbread) with an urgent rip tide of buttery sweetness. Still, if you are here at all then you should be here for the slow-cooked meats (there is salmon for pescatarians but veggies will have to heavily improvise) and their abundant accompaniments.

Magnetic: the lamb with beautifully-seasoned rice (Matt Writtle)
Magnetic: the lamb with beautifully-seasoned rice (Matt Writtle)

One £14 lamb order gets you enough to pacify at least two large adults: a hubcap platter of fragrant, turmeric-tinted bariis (seasoned rice), perfunctory shredded lettuce salad, a thrillingly volatile, coriander-spiked green hot sauce called bisbaas, and a slumped hunk of either lamb shank or shoulder. The rice is utterly magnetic; glistening, immaculately separated basmati scattered with raisins and a frizzled tangle of fried onions and peppers.

However, it is the lamb — thrumming with spice, edged in wobbling pockets of creamy fat, possessed of the sort of ethereal, collapsing tenderness that lets you pull the bone free and set it aside like a Palaeolithic artefact — that seems to tickle some uncharted quadrant of my soul every single time. You could say that a way to spot Al Kahf newbies is to identify those feeding themselves with cutlery rather than a dextrous right hand. Another would be to look out for the people shaking their heads and muttering in rapturous disbelief.

At the end of my second recent visit, I polished off a bottle of the pulverisingly sweet, Vimto-ish Arabic soft drink Shani (there is no booze), and noticed that a group of friends were finishing up afternoon prayers in a newly-built, cubby area designed for just this purpose, laughing and joking as they stepped back into their shoes and rolled up shirt sleeves in anticipation of lunch. It was a sign that the sacred and profound can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Al Kahf is a reminder that the same is true of exceptional, exhilarating and utterly unforgettable food.

112-116 Vine Court, E1 1JE. Meal for two plus drinks about £30. Open Monday to Thursday from 1pm to 11.30pm and Friday to Sunday from 2pm-11.30pm. @alkahfrestaurant