Thursday, 11 February 2016

Chifafa, Clerkenwell


It’s not unusual to talk about the meaning of life in a kebab shop. I’ve done it countless times before and perhaps you have too. The delivery can sometimes be confused but nevertheless, I find that the humble doner is a great vehicle for incoherently putting your point across. Seriously, spilt lettuce, red cabbage and slithers of brown leather falling onto the floor are perfect metaphors to describe the act of shuffling off one’s own mortal coil. One minute, there we are, a happy bundle of juicy meat, cosseted in the warm bosom of flat bread and pickles. And in the next, there we lie, desolate and scattered in or on the ground. Withered, dry, lifeless, turned to dust. C’est la vie. Yes, with mouth burning red hot, I have often sprayed this message into the faces of friends. Sometimes it’s hard to handle, hearing soliloques of stark intensity and truth. Often, the same said friends….OK, friend, would soon fall unconscious as a result. Normally at the bus stop. It was the best they could do in such circumstances. Whilst I carried on, shouting and crying towards a blackened sky.

Yet when the very same subject came up in a conversation in Chifafa recently, a kebab outfit on Clerkenwell Road, it was dealt with in an entirely different manner. For a start, I wasn’t 18 and nine sheets to the wind. Nor did I have to contend with a bellowing for ‘extra special sexy chilli sauce’ in the background, residual grime on my elbows or the threat of violence, for having accidently ‘looked’ at someone’s girlfriend in the queue. Of course, I am conjuring up stereotypical memories about kebab shops here. Some of which probably still exist, outside nightclubs in Romford, Basildon and (Jesus!) Southend. No, Chifafa is certainly a world away from all of that and I must admit, I don’t think I was quite prepared for its calm, clean and efficient atmosphere. The death chat was also a complete surprise but still, it was all in keeping with the contemplative mood inside. It was instigated by founder Nick Green by the way, this wander into what it means to die. More about that in a second though.

First then I should give a quick appraisal of what Chifafa actually is or what they are trying to do. Well of course, they are in the business of selling kebabs, with the aim making them not only an affordable bite to eat but also a healthy one. Oh and they want to save the reputation of kebabs in the UK too. Which is a high minded and naive prospect if you think about it. Turkish food does pretty well really, especially in London and no doubt, some chefs over at Green Lanes would relish the idea of nipping over to EC1 with sharpened flat skewers, just to see what these upstarts are doing. However, having taken a lead from Berlin, where they go mad for ‘kebaps’, Nick saw a middle ground between the restaurant experience and late-night elephant leg merchants, that didn’t exist in this country.

They’ve been going for about a year now and from what I saw and tasted, Chifafa has plenty going for it. The unit is small with spartan metal tables, steel flooring and an imposing central bench, that should ensure that people enter, eat and leave in true teutonic style. But the smells of the place are enticing and appealing enough to draw and keep you inside, should you want to; largely due to what is going on under the domed lids of their Big Green Eggs in the kitchen. Namely lamb, chicken, veal (interestingly) and halloumi. With falafel frying away in the background for good measure. A good selection of salads and pickles are on offer too and having been invited as a guest, I got to try a lot. Not the lot, but a lot. All the meats were imparted with a smokey flavour that was slightly different from the char that you get from a regular shish. Smoked all the way through, rather than seared on the surface and the veal was my favourite, purely for the extra element of sweetness. The halloumi salad box was good too, especially the butternut squash with chickpea and sesame.


If I had to gripe, I would say that their souvlaki breads needed to be a bit bigger, to accommodate properly, the generous filling they give. It’s nice to receive something that is bursting with ingredients but it’s not so nice they burst out all over the place after unwrapping. As an aside, a lot of street food vendors seem to do this too. You glory at the amount of stuff going in, then wrap, chomp, bang and you soon find yourself juggling and eating off the back of both your hands, forearms, shoulders, etc.

Anyway, Chifafa still got tops mark for me and part of that came down to the conversation I had with Nick, a natural raconteur. Obviously he can’t give his time to every single person who walks in and talk to them but it was great to see his passion for the business and hear his stories about previously working in the area. The creation of the name ‘Chifafa’ was the scene-stealer; born out of hearing an emotional Dustin Hoffman talk about his mother’s cooking on radio. They were fairly poor by all accounts, yet when the occasion could afford, she’d tell Dustin that she had rustled up something special for the table, with some ‘shifafa’ on the side. Which is turn is related to a line from ‘The Frim Fram Sauce’, a jazz song made famous by Nat King Cole. Dustin, being the Hollywood lovey he is, broke down into tears after playing the damn song on the radio and Nick was suddenly inspired and to cut a long story short, well it all amounts to a lovely hook for the brand and it’s one that they should definitely sell more.

The main point being is after hearing that tale, we soon started talking about our kids, the future and as you do, the Grim Reaper. Loads of stuff in fact and it occurred to me after leaving, that while Chifafa is the ideal sort of place for some quick respite. you could also easily while away some time in there; with a friend or partner and a beer or two. A far cry from the kebab shops that I grew up with. And halfway there to the restaurants whose good food they are eager to emulate.

Just the sort of place to ‘ussin-fay’ about in really.


Selection of kebabs

Big Green Eggs and halloumi salad

Man in cap, looking for prospective ussing-fay

4 comments:

Seren said...

A brave man to go late night kebab shopping in Southend!

I have fond memories of spilling out of Hollywoods in Romford and getting fresh, hot bagels from a little place just round the corner - who says that Essex girls aren't sophisticated???

Danny Kingston said...

Seren - Those were heady days but interested to hear of your memories of Hollywoods, I don't remember this bagel place? Which could be a sad reflection but where was it?

Seren said...

I think it must have been on Atlanta Boulevard as you walked (or staggered) up towards South Street. I'd love to know if it was still around. Or, indeed, if I have completely hallucinated post Hollywoods bagels. I mean, it seems like an odd side effect of three two many Smirnoff Ices but you never know.

Danny Kingston said...

Seren - Don't worry, Mrs FU has fond memories of the bagel shop, it did exist. I just don't remember it, taht's all. Terrible really.