Bab Tooma – Tastes of Syria

The brightly lit interior of Bab Tooma was welcoming on a dismal autumn evening. The restaurant has had a complete make over, following its many years serving curry as Nawab. The Middle Eastern motif includes beautiful coloured glass lamps, fabric covered benches and sturdy wooden tables.

We were quickly seated. A carafe of fresh water was brought with the wood-bound menus, the menu pages filled with easy to read script and photos that covered everything from traditional Syrian breakfasts to desserts. Children’s meals are also available. These looked good value although there was no vegetarian option in the children’s section. Vegetarians are catered for on the main menu and some dishes come with a meat or vegan option.

The restaurant opened earlier this year and is a branch of Bab Tooma in Bradford, where I had been an early visitor, working nearby when it opened in 2016. At the time it was a small, family affair. Many people wondered if it would last, given that a number of other Middle Eastern restaurants were opening in the area at the time. The building had been the city mortuary less than ten years previously and was still remembered as such.

Hard work, genuine hospitality and a steady improvement in the cuisine and service on offer have made the operation a success. There are now three branches. The original site on Wilton Street, a further Bradford branch on Leeds Road, (the former Zouk restaurant), and the Leeds branch in Oakwood. The location seems a good one. Chophaus has opened on the opposite side of the road. This area, around Oakwood Clock, really has the potential to become a foodie hub.

As soon as we placed our order, food began arriving. Everyone receives a complimentary bowl of lentil soup while their order is being prepared, which is one example of how Bab Tooma offers traditional Syrian hospitality. I was glad to see that this practice has been mirrored from the original branch, but glad that the bowls were smaller than those previously used. Alongside the soup, everyone is given a pot of fresh chilli sauce and a pot of garlic sauce, to use, as they see fit, throughout their meal.

I usually order an aubergine based dip such as mutabal or baba ganoosh as a starter. Having decided to have aubergine for a main dish, we were seduced by the highly recommended tag for the muhammara on the menu. I can now add my own recommendation. This was the stand out dish of the evening. The menu described it as a ‘grilled red pepper and almond dip’. Red pepper can make a rather wet base for a dip but with the addition of almond it became rich and creamy with a good depth of flavour. This is not a restaurant for anyone with a nut allergy, as almonds feature frequently across the menu. The muhammara was served with what I think of as genuine pitta bread: soft, light and freshly grilled.

Alongside the muhammara we ordered a portion of kebbeh. There were various kebbeh on the menu, including, unusually, a vegetarian option. The two large pieces were nicely presented with salad and pickles. The fried, stuffed wheat balls made a satisfying crunch when you cut into them, the outside dry and crisp, the centre moist and crumbly. To my mind the meat filling would have benefitted from more seasoning, although this gave me an excuse to experiment with the chilli, garlic and salt and pepper on my table.

The starters were served to share. It would be easy to design your own mezze. A number of sharing platters are available on the menu, which include cold mezze starters and some impressive grill plates. The grills to share seemed to be a popular option and a number of tables had diners gathered round raised metal racks of grilled meat and vegetables.

For mains, we had decided upon one grill and one chef’s special of karn yarek, aubergine stuffed with lamb mince. The grill selected was the lamb kebab skewers. A waiter returned to tell us there was only one skewer left but offered any other meat in place of the second at no extra cost. We chose chicken fillet. It was a good choice, with the chicken perfectly grilled, moist but with a pleasing brown exterior. The lamb skewer was well seasoned. The aubergine was moist and soft and the filling was tasty, although there was not much if it. Perhaps this was because of the shortage of lamb mince as previously highlighted by our solitary skewer, but this is a minor quibble.

The restaurant does not have an alcohol license but you are welcome to bring your own wine. A waitress quickly provided us with glasses for our bottle of red and there was no corkage charge. There is a good range of soft drinks on the menu, including a fresh mint and lemon juice or traditional yoghurt ayran.

Arabic tea and coffee are available to finish your meal or to accompany a range of traditional pastry desserts. We were too full to attempt a third course but the display looked impressive. It was good to see that that there was the option of ice cream with dessert to offset the sweetness of the sugary pastry. The bill for our filling two course meal came to just under forty pounds.

The meal overall was well cooked, well presented and served by efficient and helpful staff. At a time when restaurants are finding it hard to attract employees, Bab Tooma in Oakwood seemed to have an impressive team. All the staff were proactive, constantly checking if anything extra was needed.

The professionalism was echoed in their smart black uniforms, sporting the Bab Tooma logo.

On a damp Wednesday evening, the large restaurant was more than half full. It has the flexibility to be able to seat very large parties but also has little nooks for a romantic meal for two. It seemed to be attracting a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The owners state on their website that they would like to see a Bab Tooma in every city. This is admirably ambitious, and I certainly think the branch in Leeds is here to stay.

Bab Tooma 496 Roundhay Road, Roundhay, Oakwood, Leeds LS8 2HU

Photography by Debbie Rolls.

Debbie Rolls

Debbie's interests are in folk music and jazz, theatre and food, as well as the natural environment and Leeds' history.

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