Vicky Andrews literally squeezes in a visit to their new bricks and mortar place
As someone who’s braved the busy Baltic Market solely to sample Hafla Hafla’s legendary halloumi fries, I was keen to see how their Arabic-inspired street food would translate from casual dining to a restaurant with proper cutlery and toilets that aren’t made from MDF.
The small plates phenomenon which has swept through Liverpool’s food scene shows no signs of slowing down and Hafla Hafla’s Tim Haggis has now taken the brave leap from pop-up to permanent patch on the trendy boho drag of Lark Lane.
Another couple squeezed in on the other side, his bottom playfully rubbing against my cocktail menu...
Tim says on his website, “After years of cooking Middle Eastern-inspired food at home, I decided to give it a go on the street food circuits. Hafla means Party Party in Arabic, and I wanted my food to be all about fun.”
Street food is undoubtedly lots of fun, but it’s also a trend which has seen my partner and I on the brink of a break-up more than once as we argue over which dishes to share from a seemingly endless menu of mini meals.
We wandered into the new Hafla Hafla (they don’t take bookings) and were directed to a table next to a couple in the middle of their meal. I say next to, but I felt as if I could have got away with asking for an extra plate of my own and joined them, given that the space between our table was just six inches. Another couple squeezed in on the other side, his bottom playfully rubbing against my cocktail menu as I held onto the table and tried to stop my cutlery crashing to the floor.
It was only 7pm but already the place was busy with discerning diners, all excited and well prepped for the meze maze they were about to navigate. All that is except for the nearby rookie couple whose waitress was having to awkwardly explain that even though the two dishes they had ordered were pushing the seven quid mark, they’d probably need to order a bit more if they wanted a full meal.
We ordered five plates along with a Hafla Hafla draught beer and a bottle of Dry River shiraz (£16), the drinks arriving quickly enough to provide a decent pre-dinner chat window and an opportunity to take in the surroundings. 73 Lark Lane is unrecognisable from its previous home, Bargain Beers, and has undergone huge renovation works to create a stylish and surprisingly spacious layout across two floors. Twinkly lights and some background soul tunes warmed the room and despite the proximity of our neighbours it was a pleasant atmosphere for conversation.
Lamb kebab (£7) with pine nuts, preserved lemon, chilli, coriander and honey yoghurt, was a very tasty take on the traditional favourite. Hot on its heels came lemon sole and cod kebabs (£6) with ‘zhug’, a punchy green dip made from chillies and herbs - my favourite dish of the evening.
The humble cauliflower has found a new lease of life through Middle Eastern flavours and no serious small plates lineup is complete without a nod to Maray’s spectacular harissa-spiced version. ‘Jaffa style’ cauliflower (£6) hasn’t snatched their cauli crown but it’s still a definite floret filler and the tahini and lemon flavours packed a tangy punch in a serious-sized portion.
I wondered if I’d ‘wasted’ a choice on another vegetable, but charred tenderstem broccoli with roast beetroot hummus had some surprisingly interesting flavours going on and left another clean plate. Was it worth £7 though? Probably not.
Hafla Hafla’s signature dish is of course the halloumi fries and that evening they were our headline act. We went for the alternative option to the classic salt and pepper, with tahini, molasses and pomegranate mint (£7). Golden and crispy on the outside with a perfect squishy middle, we only wished there had been a bit more of that zingy dip that elevated the salty squeak to another level.
Passing on dessert (although I’d like to come back and try the ‘Turkish mess’) we were only left disappointed with the bland and mushy rice which accompanied two of the plates. Our server took it in the constructive nature it was intended, thanked us for the feedback and promised to pass it on to management - absolutely the correct response for any restaurant serious about maintaining its reputation in the long run.
The final challenge was to squeeze out of the confined space again, a task made only more complicated after devouring quite a lot of food and half a bottle of wine each. The only way was to announce to our neighbours we were coming through to the left, and hope they had a firm grip on their zhug balls.
Tim Haggis seems to have achieved his wish with this latest venture with a fun dining experience which deserves the success that will inevitably come in such a prime location that’s been wisely launched in the run up to Christmas. But there’s still a little room for improvement, including taking out a table or two to add more value to the bottom line, a quick win that would probably guarantee bums on seats all year round.
Hafla Hafla, 73 Lark Lane, Aigburth, Liverpool, L17 8UP
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Lamb kebab 7; Lemon sole and cod kebabs 8; Jaffa style cauliflower 8; Charred tenderstem broccoli 6; Halloumi fries 10
Attentive and efficient but needs a better knowledge of dietary requirements
Rustic elegance; give us some more room to breathe