Everything about this restaurant is inconspicuous. Tucked away down a narrow passageway, towards the bottom of Whitechapel High Street, Al-Kahf is not the easiest place to find, but it is certainly well worth the search.
After passing through the narrow passageway and into the small cul-de-sac known as Vine Court, you will see the red and black sign of ‘Al Kahf’.
The name is a fitting one, ‘Al Kahf’, meaning the ‘the cave’ in Arabic, aptly describing the cavernous space. To get into the cave, you must travel down a winding set of stairs with cracked black and white tiled walls.
At the bottom of the stairs the reward is great as you enter into a large square sanctuary humming with laughter and excited chatter.
The restaurant is a community hub for Whitechapel’s Somali community, and although its clientele is diverse, it is chiefly peopled by Somalians enjoying traditional East African cuisine.
The colour palette of the room is understated, shades of cream and light brown adorn the walls and simple wooden furniture fills the floor. The minimalistic approach to décor, with the added embellishments of wood panelled pillars running through its centre and small bunches of vine leaves hanging overhead, produces an unpretentious welcoming effect.
Massive silver platters are served to groups at long rectangular tables by tireless, but warm, waiters and waitresses. The silver platters contain a litany of flavoursome Somalian dishes, such as marinated chicken and pan fried Salmon, which are generally shared by groups.
The food is incredible and genuinely affordable. I only paid £8 for a plate of Beef Suqaar, a complex Somalian dish with diced beef pan fried in a variety of spices and served with cubed potatoes, carrots and a plate of rice peppered with dried fruits.
The spiced beef was succulent, and complimented the vegetable and rice mix to create a massively hearty and flavoursome dish.
However, the supposed jewel in the restaurant’s crown is its slow baked, lamb shoulder, which is paired with basbaas (green chili sauce) for those inclined to spice, flavoursome bariis iskukaris (Somali rice) and a generous cut of toasted flatbread.
Like the majority of the clientele, I ate with my right hand as is the dining etiquette in Somalia, but utensils are also made available for those who want them.
I could not fault the atmosphere either, the space provides a warm, relaxing environment, where you can sit unbothered, take a breath and digest after your meal.
This unassuming restaurant offers a much welcomed break from the usual feeling of post-meal guilt one often gets eating out in London for spending longer than ten minutes at your table after your meal.
This space is free from the hovering waiters trying to shoe out customers to make space for the next customer. Instead you can revel in the social club atmosphere of a roomful of contented, full customers engaging in laughter and discussion.
Al Kahf has also opened a new shop on Whitechapel High Street, evidencing its growing popularity, but the new shop doesn’t do walk-ins, just bookings.
The restaurant is open from eleven or twelve in the morning until half 11 every night.
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