Like most kebab joints, Kebab Queen doesn’t do plates. But this is where its similarities to a common-or-garden high street kebabery end.
The subterranean space is probably best described as a kebab-themed high-end dining experience. It serves a £60 seven-course tasting menu inspired by a dish that – in this country, at least – is more associated with questionable meat-sourcing practices and messy nights out than haute cuisine.
Food is served directly onto a heated 10-seater counter and – with the exception of one dish –is designed to be eaten with the hands, a nod to the manner in which most kebabs are consumed.
The counter – which is made out of a material called Dekton that is impervious to the blemishes in which bacteria can hide – is wiped down between courses with a squeegee and a home-made cleaning solution of lemon juice, vodka and citric acid.
It may sound a bit gimmicky and overwrought (if not completely insane), but Kebab Queen is a surprisingly coherent restaurant experience thanks to the pedigree of those involved. The concept (that word is used advisedly) is the culmination of three years’ work for Stephen Tozer, Ed Brunet and Manu Canales.
The trio already know a thing or two about serving high-quality kebabs having founded Le Bab in Soho and, more recently, Maison Bab in Covent Garden.
Launched in Kingly Court back in 2016, Le Bab is – until Kebab Queen officially launches later this month – the more premium of the trio’s restaurants, yet it is still affordable with most kebabs just north of £10. The original plan was to gradually build towards something more ambitious and cerebral at that location, but the trio changed their minds.
“We had three ex-Le Gavroche chefs in the kitchen when we launched and had big ambitions in terms of how fine we could make it,” says Tozer. “We wanted to end up somewhere not that far away from what we’re going to be doing at Kebab Queen.”
But the trio soon realised that it would be folly to push kebabs to their limit at their Soho location, not least because Kingly Court is more geared to casual operations (le Bab’s neighbours include Pizza Pilgrims, Shoryu and The Rum Kitchen). More importantly the business was flying. “It was a winning formula. You’d be stupid to mess around with it,” continues Tozer. “We’re just thankful it did well and has allowed us to explore other projects.”
A semi-secret kebab restaurant
Maison Bab launched late last year and is intended to be more casual than its older sister with marginally lower prices, more hearty kebabs and a slightly faster service style and a more casual feel.
Kebab Queen is located in Maison Bab’s cavernous basement, one side of which is styled to resemble a high street. Accessed through a prep kitchen, the space has an industrial vibe that’s softened by pink velvet curtains, expensive-looking blue leather stools and a trio of chandeliers.
“We had always wanted to do something that pushed the boundaries of the dish, but we were planning to do it in a stand-alone restaurant,” says Brunet. “When we saw the space that is now Maison Bab and Kebab Queen we just loved it. It struck us that we could nail both in one spot and have them bounce off each other.”
The level of interaction with the chef – Spanish-born Canales is leading the project and will cook there the four nights a week it is open for the foreseeable future – makes the experience oddly reminiscent of an omakase sushi restaurant.
"This is not a kebab rescue mission.
We just want to do our own thing with it"
The philosophy will be similar to Le Bab and Maison Bab in that Kebab Queen won’t take influence from one kebab culture. Tozer rightly points out that kebabs are a broad church. “Technically speaking, it’s the technique of cooking meat or fish on a grill. It’s an incredibly varied dish.”
Understandably, most British people think of doner and shish when they hear the word ‘kebab’, with the majority of UK kebab shops owned and run by those of Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot heritage. While kebabs did almost certainly originate in that part of the world, they are a truly global dish.
With this in mind, Kebab Queen references everything from UK high street kebabs and dishes found in Turkish ocakbasi restaurants to the kabab koobidehs of Iran and the shawarmas of Lebanon and Israel. “We’re inspired by everything from childhood memories of food to more recent trips to the Middle East,” says Canales. “The tasting menu format is a great way to showcase what we do and take guests on a journey through kebabs.”
The trio are clear that they’re not trying to replicate traditional dishes, but that they do try to respect them.“We love this dish, and we want to explore it and make it as delicious as we possibly can, but using a fair bit of creative licence,” says Tozer. “We’re the first to admit it’s not our culture. Manu has an incredible technical grounding in food so we can bring something new to the table. We just saw a massive creative opportunity.”
As you would expect, the kitchen’s main piece of kit is a grill, a multi-level set-up that also features a small motorised rotisserie. While there is some kit you’d be unlikely to find in your local kebab house – including a Pacojet, a waterbath and a high-end blender – there’s nothing too ‘out there’.
“We’re not going to be spherifying anything,” says Canales, whose launch menu includes secreto of Iberian pork with lardo pickled in cider vinegar and dusted with green chilli powder; foie gras with date purée, white onions, Grand Marnier-soaked jumbo raisins and potato cooked in duck fat with black cardamom; and grilled monkfish and monkfish liver with an intense jus made with monkfish and chicken bones.
But perhaps the most memorable will be Canales’ doner risotto: rice cooked in powerful lamb stock topped with chilli sauce, garlic mayonnaise, sumac-flavoured onions and grated with semi-dried lamb’s tongue (a play on the practice of topping risotto with grated truffle).
As this creation demonstrates, the dishes at Kebab Queen don’t all involve proteins served in bread, although a number of them do. In keeping with the haute approach, Kebab Queen offers a drinks pairing (£35) that matches the innovation of the food, while being suitably high calibre,” says Brunet. “For some of the dishes it was obvious. For example, the doner risotto goes really well with lager, but others have been trickier to match, such as the duck fesenjan with its mineral, fruity, sweet, sour and umami flavours.” As such the team has ended up with an eclectic selection of drinks, including wines, beers and cocktails.
The trio have to be careful with their messaging. Last year, fellow contemporary kebab purveyors Fanny’s Kebabs were skewered for bringing ‘posh kebabs’ to Stoke Newington, an area that is already replete when it comes to delicious kebabs thanks to its large Turkish community.
The backlash on social media forced Fanny’s to make an embarrassing branding U-turn and drop the word ‘posh’ from its logo (although it did follow through with the opening). Tozer is understandably reticent to comment directly on the Fanny’s fiasco, but in one unguarded moment he does say it would be ‘totally insane’ for the trio to open a Bab restaurant in Green Lanes, another area of north London that has a high concentration of Turkish ocakbası (grill) restaurants.
But they’re certainly sailing close to the wind with Kebab Queen. It’s difficult to argue that a £55 kebab-based tasting menu served in a 10-cover restaurant isn’t a deluxe take on the genre. Of course, that is absolutely not how it’s being marketed, with Kebab Queen billed as a project that will confront preconceptions about kebabs and push them as far as they can go.
It will be interesting to see what the likes of The Sun and The Daily Star make of a kebab restaurant where the experience takes over two hours and in which most people will drop over £100 (if there are any tabloid hacks out there struggling for a headline we’d suggest Are you kebbabing a laugh?).
Joking aside, anyone that sits down with the trio will soon realise that they have their hearts in the right place. Not only are they respectful and knowledgeable when it comes to their source material, they are also big advocates of the wider kebab scene. “There are more good kebabs out there than people think,” says Tozer. “There are a lot of basic places that serve really decent kebabs. Admittedly the provenance of the meat can be questionable at some places, but it’s important to remember that the price point is very reasonable.”
The trio hate the idea of people thinking that they have a superiority complex when it comes to kebabs. “We’re doing this because we love kebabs, and by extension the current kebab scene,” Tozer continues. “What I find really strange is the idea that people look at what we’ve done and what we’re doing and say: ‘you must be doing that because you think kebabs need improving’. This is not a kebab rescue mission. We just want to do our own thing with it. When people open new pizza restaurants, they’re not accused of gentrifying pizza.”
They won’t be drawn on rumours that they are out to win a star with Kebab Queen, but given the its attention to detail and price point it’s a safe bet Michelin would, at the very least, have crossed their minds.
“What we do in here is on a very different level to Le Bab and Maison Bab in terms of the technique and the rigour that is going into every course,” says Tozer. “The attention to detail and technique is going to be crazy.”
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the March issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here