Skewers of chicken marinated in Levantine spices and rolled in pistachios
Image: Joe Woodhouse
As we sit in the sunshine perched atop a stool outside the flung-open floor-to-ceiling windows at Arabica Bar and Kitchen, our stomachs begin to rumble. “Hummus with spring veg; muhummara—roasted red peppers blitzed with walnuts and pistachios and pomegranate molasses; batata harra—triple cooked potatoes tossed in a spiced, herby sauce. Our new creation, the Phoenicia salad, a playful Levantine-inspired spin on the classic American waldorf, with baby gem, julienned celeriac, apple, cushed walnuts, torn mint and a lemon and tahini-buttermilk dressing, finished with pul biber. You could have two dishes, you could have five. It depends how hungry you are”—following that run down from chef and restauranteur James Walters, the answer is ‘very’, and ‘all of them please’. And we’ve not even made it to the main event.
The star—and indeed, the reason we’re here—is the chicken and pistachio shish. Regulars will know it well, as it’s been on the menu since Arabica’s inception, “but recently we’ve reworked it slightly,” says James. “We’ve spiked the marinade with a little bit of extra green chilli, just to give it more oomph, and added a lovely side salad of shaved fennel, chicory, fresh mint and orange. The bitter-sweet freshness of the garnish is a delicious juxtaposition with the kick of the marinade,” he explains.
Slow grown and free-range
“From the beginning I wanted the dish to be very minimalist, to pay homage to the incredible chicken we use,” he says, referring to the 84-day aged, slow grown and totally free-range chicken, from a pesticide-free farm up in Rugby. “It’s had so much activity, the meat is incredibly richly textured. It’s a different grade of bird.”
As with everything on the menu, the marinade is inspired by the flavours of the Levant—but with an Arabica twist. Yoghurt, cardamom, green chilli, brown sugar, honey, parsley, black pepper, garlic, “it’s got all of those flavour profiles you associate with the Middle East, but if you were to serve this to someone from the region, most would say, ‘this isn’t a chicken shish’. It is—‘shish’ meaning ‘skewer’, it being chicken on a skewer—but it’s just our take on it.”
Two days of mingling
Breast meat is left to mingle with all those Middle Eastern flavours for a minimum of two days before being cooked over English charcoal. “We continually baste it, building up that layer of infused yoghurt until the sugar begins to bubble and caramelise,” says James. Once charred, the skewers are raised off the grill and put on to the lowest heat to slow-cook and soak up all that smokiness. To finish, it’s drizzled with olive oil and rolled in finely-ground roasted pistachios.
“The olive oil and pistachio add this layer of creamy, sweet nuttiness as you bite into the chicken, it is delicious. It’s a real summery dish—it evokes memories of being in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon on a beautiful day, looking across the wine fields. Even on a glum, grey day in London, it makes you feel like you’re somewhere else.”