We have the builders in – or rather they came, ripped out the sink, the stove and the dishwasher, and disappeared leaving me dreaming of a white kitchen. Consequently, I am the take-out queen in a land where half the kids are on mid-term break and the other half are looking, in vain, for clean school uniform. We’ve eaten our way through the leaflets stuffed through the door. We’ve had unspeakably bad pizza; ferocious Thai; rotisseried chicken; so-so sushi; a healthy selection of delicious organic salads and sandwiches sent from Plant in Poland Street (020 7734 7528) and daily unhealthy, eat-your own weight in grease sessions at the local café. In the middle of this extended picnic stir crazy and querulous, we finally managed to escape the building site for a trip to Saudi Bayswater in Edgware Road.
When you think of restaurant empires the Maroush kingdom does not immediately spring to mind yet there are 14 restaurants in the group (two not yet opened) which range from Italian, fish, traditional Lebanese mezza style white tablecloth jobs to my personal favourite - Ranoush juice bar, which was named for the owner’s daughter. This tiny walk-in, take-out concession sells the original Middle East fast food – shawarma sandwiches, served with a welcome jolt of freshly squeezed juice on the side, while generally testing the bravery of the average Brit. The café is open from 9am to 3am, disgorging bodies on to the pavement while the inside is jam-packed with our Middle Eastern brethren in everything from full hijab to Hermes headscarf, all clutching mobile phones while yelling at the top of their voices over the belting of syncopated wailing from whichever Diva they’re featuring on the sound system. It’s one of the few places in London where you can eat well for under a fiver at any time of the day or night whilst also guaranteeing an exclusion zone on all forms of public transport and marital beds due to the fearsomeness of the garlic.
Even with native reinforcements I still feel a little daunted but the six of us managed to find space crowded around one of the three tables free wedged between two bars where customers can sit down one side of the room. The other side is an extensive glass fronted cabinet housing the juice bar with an array of fruits ranging from melons to mangos; rot-your-teeth sugary Arabic sweets which by law you must eat during the various Muslim holidays or they send dentists round to your door with begging bowls; then trays of dips with a brace of spinning spits on which sizzle chicken and lamb. Smaller dishes of the traditional humous and moutabal (smokey, aubergine dip) are served with bread at £3.50 a plate – while the sandwiches, for which the place is famed, cost £2.50, except shawarma which rolls in at £3.00. You order at the cash register inconveniently placed in the middle of the press of heaving bodies, then take your ticket to individual counters – down to the juice bar for a freshly squeezed carrot juice, or banana smoothie of such uncomplicated creamy sweetness that you feel the years fall off until you need a bib and a rattle, or up to the sandwich counter where you definitely need a bib. Sandwiches come wrapped in cylindrical white paper papooses and there’s an art to opening them. First thing – do not, repeat not, unwrap it or you must return to Go and ask for the nearest dry cleaners. This is because, as well as lettuce, tomato, pickle and your filling of choice, they contain ladles of tahini sauce (pulped sunflower seeds mixed with lemon juice) which is the Arab equivalent of brown sauce. This stuff drips, seeps and runs all over your hands, up your arms, down your chin and into your cleavage, so the trick is to tear off the top half of the paper wrapping around the girth of the sandwich. Think ….oh well never mind, maybe we wont go down that road… just eat your way down, peeling as you go until you’re left with a messy paper wrapper – a large heap of serviettes and a full stomach.
We had sublime, crisp, piping hot falafel – with a bowl of blood red shamandar, (pickled beetroot) and neon pink strips of pickled turnip, a few dips, and a pile of chicken and lamb shawarma sandwiches. Yes it’s noisy, yes it’s crowded, and yes, the faint-hearted would no doubt be more comfortable in the relative serenity of either of the two nearby Maroush restaurants, but if you’re in a hurry – this is as fast as it gets.
More bread for the humous was proffered without us asking, or paying, for more, and the kids were presented with a plate of Arabic sweets and slices of fruit, again without charge. No service charge, no fuss, no fanfare, just a genuinely kind attitude towards children. I must get the recipe for that one.