To look on at the birth of a new restaurant is always exciting – I’ve been a part of it, having seen the place I worked at in Oxford rise from the ashes of a mediocre Italian cocktail bar, and realising that I really wanted to be a part of that. Teething problems ranged from gutters that drained into the balcony (we bailed it out with saucepans, literally) to much more minor tweaks, like who supplied our bread. The tentative first few months were some of the most stressful and intense that I have ever worked. It was therefore amazing to me to step into the fresh faced Ceru, in South Kensington, and witness a polished, refined machine that was only three months into its operation. I’d cycled past it for the few months that it took to strip away the previous occupant and revitalise the interiors, and so knew that it was absolutely brand new, and yet when I went, it looked like it had been a local fixture for ages. So how had they done it?
Simple – they’d meticulously planned before they opened. Barry and Patricia Hilton, the husband-and-wife team behind Ceru, tested many of the ideas beforehand with their successful pop-up under the same name – visiting festivals, private dinners and shows to serve simple, yet delicious dishes from the Levant to a huge audience. It’s reasonable therefore to say that they have some experience, and inside the restaurant it shows. I’ve visited twice now – for a post exam lunch, and a more relaxed breakfast. The former trip was an escape from the drizzle we have been used to over the past few months, and the cosy booths, lit with beautiful geometric lighting on the walls behind, provided a warm embrace to whip away any memories of either the weather, or the equally miserable exam that I had just sat. And yet when I visited on a bright spring morning last week, it was equally as homely in the early rays of sunshine that were just peeking under the deep blue awning. The whole restaurant took on a brilliant palette of colours, with the patterned seating, tiles and lights transporting me straight back to one of the many cafés in Istanbul – one of my favourite cities, especially for food and drink.
Post exam, we decided that cocktails were a necessary fix for our mood. A Cucumber Martini (made without Hendricks, something I am personally glad to see the end of) and a delightful gin-and-Campari based Trouble in Paradise quickly lifted our spirits, and in perfect sync with the cocktails arrived the first dishes, a rarity in some restaurants these days. With their tagline of “Share the flavours of The Levant”, don’t expect dainty portions for you to nibble at and politely enquire how everyone is enjoying their food – you’ll want to ask your lab partner for some of their creamy roasted aubergines with piquant, earthy chermoula, and expect to trade it for succulent, tender lamb shoulder – two of my favourite dishes, and both wonderfully executed: the lamb not too fatty, yet unctuous still, and the aubergines roasted enough to give a smoky tang but not an ashtray like sting. The Village Salad cleansed us in between mouthfuls, providing a wonderful fresh contrast and packing flavours of its own, with fried capers and sumac to give it body. Lunch finished with some of the best fried halloumi – something I normally regard as the most humble of dishes, but one that here was a stand out hit with everyone, with the fruity red peppers and harissa cutting the perfect balance to the crispy, golden cheese.
The biggest success of the day, however, was for my coeliac friend, who I must confess I normally dread taking to a new restaurant. Quite by accident, the All Day Menu is entirely gluten free (avoiding the pita bread, understandably), leaving her gawping like a kid in a toy shop, able to choose whatever she wanted without hunting for the illusive (g) on the menu.
They haven’t managed the universal gluten-freeness on their breakfast menu – but there are plenty of delicious options to choose from. Sweet, soothing Apple Tea to start, followed by shakshouka (just-baked eggs in spiced tomato sauce) with tender, perfectly cooked merguez sausage is the divine middle-eastern equivalent of a Full English, without making me feel quite as guilty afterwards. To see it away, some homemade Basil-honey lemonade and fresh breads, with black olive, feta and barberry jam. Not quite a substitute for a trip to the med, but a very close second.
It’s inspiring to see the rise of a new restaurant like Ceru – and wonderful to have graced its doors before the inevitable crowds of regulars appear. Get there soon, or you’ll have to queue round the block.
And exclusive to Imperial students, so that you and friends can also treat yourselves to a post exams meal: 10% off your total bill at Ceru on presentation of a valid Imperial College ID, for up to four people. Who says felix isn’t good to its readers?
Ceru, 7-9 Bute St: 7 minutes from campus, 2 minutes from South Ken tube station. Lunch/Dinner: £10-15 for an ample meal, £9 express lunch with a taste of everything. Cocktails £7.5, Breakfast £5-10