Walking along Brick Lane on a Sunday is something akin to going to a body pump class. You carry on pushing and pulling even though you’re panting like a lycra clad dog, your sole aim is making it out the other side alive. I have never actually experienced the delights of attending a body pump class, so may, of course, be misguided, but it is my firm view that bodies are made to be rested and pumping should be left to…pumps, so I don’t intend to sign up for classes any time soon.
The Hookah Lounge Brick Lane is an oasis of calm amongst the Darwinian fight for survival going on outside. At this point I should probably provide some vague history or information regarding Hookah Lounge, the story behind its “conception”, where the “idea” came from. I have no such information and didn’t think to ask, and don’t suppose the types that would frequent Hookah Lounge particularly care. So instead I will talk about my previous experiences of Arabia, the target atmosphere of this little café.
The closest I have come to living the Princess Jasmine dream was a brief stint in Morocco. I would like to pretend it was on business, but it wasn’t. It was, in fact, more a sort of accidental holiday. Whilst there, I took it upon myself to explore the capital of Rabat. After a day inhaling flies and getting run over by mopeds (literally) in the medina, we wound up at the port and settled on a ledge, overlooking the fishermen larking about in their boats.
The appearance of two thoroughly conspicuous tourists prompted one fisherman to reach over the side of his little boat, pluck an unsuspecting fish out of the sea with his bare hand (he was highly skilled at his job, I’ll give him that) and fling it at me.
Fortunately, I ducked and turned in time, thanks to the quick reactions garnered in my table tennis playing heyday, and instead of hitting the intended destination of my face, the fish thwacked me on the bum and bounced some five metres along the jetty until it ground to a halt, where it proceeded to flap about gasping for air. Another fisherman, taking pity on the fish but, alas, not on me, picked up said fish and flung it back into the water. Everyone continued what they were doing without so much as turning a hair.
Fortunately, Hookah Lounge is not by a port and sitting on a low comfy Arabian sofa inside I felt fairly safe. A waiter came over to take our order. Taking no risks, and preferring to remain fish free, I ordered a coke. ‘Don’t you want tea?’ enquired my lunch partner (and, indeed, lunch benefactor), quite reasonably so, seeing as the Hookah Lounge is predominantly a place where one goes to drink tea.
Image: Imogen Robinson
I wasn’t all that sure if I wanted tea though. Mainly because in true Moroccan style I took it upon myself, whilst in Rabat, to consume sweet mint tea as the locals do to cool down in the summer heat. However, I was not a local and had yet to fully comprehend that if you continue trying to tan in the forty-degree midday sunlight, you may be putting yourself at considerable risk. I drank my hot tea whilst reclining in the sunniest sunspot in Morocco and promptly fainted, whilst locals still insisted on trying to shovel spoons of couscous into my mouth.
My point is, in a desert environment, I have become wary of drinking hot tea. However, seeing as it was September, in London, and not August, in Africa, I decided I was probably safe and perused the menu. I might have chosen Kashmiri Tea ‘Laced with saffron and the perfume of the mountains.’ Or Afghani Tea: ‘The staple of Afghans, normally served from large samovars in small teahouses just like this one.’ I didn’t particularly want to smell like a mountain, so I didn’t go for Kashmiri. I also avoided the Afghani simply because I don’t know what a samovar is and it sounds too menacing to be deemed suitable for tea serving.
Instead I went for the ‘Egyptian hibiscus’ tea, because it is ‘An ancient drink, reputedly a favourite of pharaohs.’ I do love the pharaohs and imagine I’d have similar interests to a lot of them. For example, I would love my entrails to be kept in funky animal themed pots after my death. For this reason, I presumed I’d enjoy sharing their taste in tea too. It was a beautiful deep red colour and tasted sharp and fruity and…red. My business partner had the Kashmiri tea, which didn’t taste like a mountain and, despite being ‘laced’ with saffron, managed to avoid tasting like paella, which is also commonly ‘laced’ with saffron, I believe.
Tea drinking forms an important part of Arabic culture. Image: alexis.stroemer via flickr
Whilst consuming the tea at a thoroughly leisurely pace and talking business, because we were there, after all, on business, more people began to arrive at the restaurant as lunchtime drew near. An eclectic selection of people streamed in, local youngsters, older shoppers, tourists and the odd stray hipster or two, proving that this mini Arabia truly caters for all tastes.
Seeing as my whole life has been geared towards the aim of having a business lunch, I was in no particular rush and was enjoying basking in faux-corporate delight. Although the two of us were taking up about six seats, no one hurried us, a testament to the laid back vibe of the place. So laid back, in fact, that had we not been there on business, I would have been tempted to order from a long list of reasonably priced cocktails, but, ever the professional, I restrained.
Eventually we ordered food, choosing from a menu comprising of a variety of pita sandwiches, chicken curry, meatballs, ‘Ladies Fingers’ (not joking, and no, didn’t want to enquire), four or five suitably “ethnic chic” salads and a selection of mezze dishes, all priced around three or four pounds. To make life simple we went for the vegetarian selection and the ‘Sultan’s Mezze’, a hot selection.
The food came not all that promptly, but who am I to judge, and it consisted of two large plates of hoummous, tzatziki, stuffed vine leaves, olives and pita, batata hara (roast potatoes tossed in olive oil & chili), kibbe (lamb meatballs), moussaka and moutardada (rice with glazed onions).
Image: Imogen Robinson
The hoummous was delicious, as hoummous generally is unless the assigned hoummous maker is particularly inept, and the tzatziki equally good. I wasn’t so much a fan of the vine leaves though. This was actually my first ever stuffed vine leaf and I just didn’t really enjoy eating a leaf.
You can pick a leaf up off the street, and the reason that you don’t see people doing so is because no one wants to eat leaves. The kibbe was great, being something akin to a Lebanese take on the scotch egg, a take which unfortunately involved losing the egg, but it made up for lost egg in found spices and tasted divine.
The vegetarian moussaka was a bit disappointing seeing as it lacked the béchamel on top, which is surely the entire point of moussaka. Maybe it wasn’t moussaka though, cannot be sure. The moutardada was delicious, topped with a handful of onion, caramelised to perfection. The portions were generous and three of you could eat your fill for less than the price of a pint, which is the currency in which I generally negotiate.
Image: Imogen Robinson
Had the mood taken us, we could have puffed away on a hookah pipe whilst sitting outside. Unfortunately I am not a fan of shisha because the bubbling sound reminds me of that moment when you’re snorkelling but duck your head without thinking in order to dodge a jellyfish/similar, and end up with lungs full of water and, inevitably, a couple of Portuguese Man O’ War strike marks across your back as it mistakes you for a juicy squid (happens to the best of us). So we didn’t try the Shisha, but don’t let me put you off.
All in all, the food is tasty and Hookah Lounge has a lovely relaxed atmosphere, perfect for a respite from the madding crowd, which was becoming increasingly madding outside. For a business lunch, which it was, the music was a bit loud, (not to mention bizarrely eclectic bordering on downright baffling) and combined with the noise from the street outside it was a bit much, at times.
Whether popping in for some tea, lunch, or a full-blown Arabian night on the town, this is a nice little haunt, and a lot easier to get to than Morocco or Lebanon. Plus no one will chuck a fish at you, which can only be a good thing.
Hookah Lounge is on Brick Lane and open Monday-Thursday, Sunday 11-23.30 and Friday-Saturday 11-02.00.
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