FOOD & DRINK with Martin Dawes: All friends together in the café with the happy ending

Cafe des Amis owners Lena Mussa (left) and Zahra Othman, with manager Steve Blyth.
Cafe des Amis owners Lena Mussa (left) and Zahra Othman, with manager Steve Blyth.
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FUNNY, isn’t it, how the risk of snow takes you back to the desert but here’s how it happened to me the other week.

We’d planned a meal out of town but the weatherman warned of snow that night so I neshed it and chose somewhere closer to home.

Café des Amis on Chesterfield Road is in premises which used to sell massages with (they say) a happy ending, before becoming a sari shop.

Now it offers Turkish cum Middle Eastern food – mainly mezze with salads, sandwiches and very good coffee. It also claims French cuisine but I’m not sure where that is on the menu unless it’s the gateaux.

Peering at the menu I saw the word zatar, which is an Arab spice mix mainly of dried thyme and, sesame and my mind went back to the first time I’d eaten it, for breakfast, out in the Jordanian desert. You get a flatbread, tear a bit off, dip it into olive oil and then the zatar and that, with a boiled egg, is brekkers Arab-style.

There was a group of us and we’d gone to bed the previous night on the sand under the stars, our sleeping bags huddled companionably together. The next morning I woke up and was alone.

They’d all rolled away during the night because I am afraid I snore very loudly. No one said a word at breakfast but I sensed the camels gave me a reproachful look.

Café des Amis opened a month or so ago and is run by a couple of women friends, Palestinian Lena Mussa and Zahra Othman, who is Turkish. They were in the kitchen and ventured out only to deliver the food.

So it’s a male presence front of house. Manager Steve Blyth was away but there were a couple of friendly chaps taking orders when not pushing a pink broom around the floor.

Not that there was any meeting and greeting when we arrived. We were left to find a seat and hung about a bit wondering whether we went to them or they to us, so it’s pretty relaxed here.

There are brick walls, a black tiled floor, a mix of tables, chairs and squishy seats and brightly coloured lightshades, like something out of The 1001 Nights.

It’s a bit like the cafes you find in the Middle East, minus the telly, right down to the shisha pipes, which you have to smoke at the tables outside. Not a good idea with snow in the air.

Another strong point are the prices. Apart from some main courses, mostly served only at weekends, the menu runs from sandwiches, salads and soups to mezze dishes from between £2 and £3.50. You couldn’t break the bank here so it’s a great place to come if you’re on a budget and not dying for a drink.

It’s no booze, not even BYO, so it was mango juice (£2.30) and cola (60p) for us.

We began with the three starters (£2 each), a smashing, slightly grainy hummus, a gloriously smoky paste of grilled aubergine with tahini, which is called here metabel baba ganog but which you may know as the Levantine baba ganoush, and the café’s version of the Egyptian foul mesdames.

I’ve hankered after this stew of broad beans since reading Claudia Roden’s recipe in A Book of Middle Eastern Food, recounting the dishes she grew up with in a Jewish household in Egypt in the Forties and Fifties.

It’s a gutsy, garlicky treat, eaten like the others with flat bread, here mashed to a paste rather than the beans left whole. This is a dish which has travelled the Mediterranean, undergoing subtle changes. I’ve eaten it in Malta, where it is called bigilla, minus the tahini but with plenty of parsley or marjoram.

They also do samosas here, dainty little things in crisp filo pastry with lamb or vegetable fillings. The lamb one was spiked with cumin. At two for 60p, they’re a real bargain.

Portions are decent and we were already getting full but we’d ordered some of the safaih dishes – fillings wrapped in a bread-like dough – at £3.50 each or three for a tenner.

The safiah zatar, fresh thyme with onion and lemon was off the menu because they were out of fresh thyme (now I hadn’t known there was a particular type of thyme) but I could get the dried version in spades with safiah manaquesh.

It looks like a mini pizza with the mix spread as a topping on a circular naan bread. You get two. One mouthful and I was back in the desert with the camels. The wife wasn’t so keen, though.

The others were folded over like triangular pasties. One with a spinach filling was a little dry but we loved the feta cheese with olives, not so distant from the Greek boureki, minus the flaky pastry.

Wicked cakes are courtesy of that lovely little La Perle patisserie on The Wicker and we shared a delightful strawberry and nut gateau for the giveaway price of £2.50.

We washed it down with teas (I’d had the ultra strong Arabic coffee on a lunchtime recce), mint and yansoon (aniseed) at £1.80 a cup.

The bill was £26.20, the nicest kind of happy ending.