Kenza (which means “treasure” in Arabic) is located in Devonshire Square, a traffic-free series of connected courtyards teeming with shopping, bars and eateries that is located between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. Along with Kenza, the area boasts the Cinnamon Kitchen and a Marco Pierre White steakhouse. As expected, it’s very popular with the professional crowd, as trains and tubes home are just round the corner. The entrance is off the main courtyard and down an unassuming side passage – just walk toward the red carpet – the only thing of real colour in the alley. Parking in the area is difficult at best, so public transport is your best bet.
The ornate entrance, which leads to a softly lit spiral staircase, is a small taste of things to come. It leads to a fabulous basement dining room richly and lavishly decorated with fabrics, soft furnishings, and intricate Moorish art. The room offers a variety of seating arrangements such as long tables, private booths, and secluded corners, with a private dining room also available for small groups. Settings are each laid with a dark red napkin adorned with a single red, silky rose petal. Once seated a drinks order is taken, and there is an intriguing selection of cocktails available (menu on the table). That said, beer was limited to either Efes (Turkish) or Cobra (Indian) which didn’t really seem in keeping with the theme. The menu provides a broad variety of familiar hot and cold meze, and a large selection of grills and bakes for the main courses.
Some excellent green and black olives, crudités and a tahini-based dip are served while waiting for appetisers to arrive, which consisted of delicious, fresh warmed pitta bread, along with a pretty good hummus, a fantastic baba ghanoush (a tahini and aubergine dip) and a decent tabbouleh nestled on a romaine lettuce base. After a short interval the hot stuff followed – a patata harra (reminiscent of patatas bravas in tapas, but a LOT spicier), deep fried lamb and bulghur kofteh filled with mince, onion and pine nuts, and sambousek – a delicious concoction of shredded chicken with onions and walnuts. The food effortlessly matched the lushness of the décor. Portions were very well sized, leaving plenty of room for the main courses to follow.
Once the hot meze was demolished there was something of a pause. The piped music, which to that point, was a rather incongruous mellow house mix, suddenly changed tack and started blaring out cheesy Arabic pop. The reason for the change of pace soon became apparent as three scantily clad belly dancers started to make their way through the dining room wiggling for all they were worth. The whole performance seemed a little twee and forced, and frankly, could have been done without. The female diners studiously ignored them, whilst their male partners kept eyes down, with the occasional surreptitious peek so as not to offend their dates. After about ten minutes of strutting their stuff to some distorted wailings over the in-house speaker system, the dancers withdrew, never to return. The music reverted back to mellow house and it was as if the whole thing never quite happened. Surreal.
After the dancing, the main course arrived – a veritable mountain of various barbecued meats piled on a plate of rice and salad. It looked quite promising but unfortunately, in keeping with the dance performance it followed, it was something of a disappointment. Apart from the spiced minced lamb (kafta lahmé) everything was too dry and more than a little overcooked. The lamb cubes (lahem meshoué) which should have been quite tender were especially stringy – much more in keeping with a local kebab house than a City eatery charging a premium for it. The chicken cubes were quite flavourful and well marinated, but the taste was let down by its texture. Only copious helpings of the garlic and harissa sauces provided saved the mains from mediocrity.
By 9pm (on a Tuesday evening) most diners had been and gone, and no one seemed to be coming to take their places. Apparently, the restaurant is only open until 10pm. In any event, it seemed the waiting staff had disappeared with them, as we barely saw anyone for five minutes at a time. Eventually, the equivalent of a North African chaiwallah appeared with a pot of sweet mint tea and made a grand performance of pouring the tea from a great height into the glass cups on his bronzed tray. With the tea dutifully distributed, a tall dessert stand arrived, generously filled with Turkish Delight, some decent baklava and sweets, and a large helping of fresh fruits.
Tragic or Treasure?
So, is Kenza worthy of a special night out? Given that the a la carte menu offerings average around £5.50 a plate for the meze, £18.00 per main and £6 for puddings, a couple could expect to part with around £50 a head (including a £1.50 per person cover charge and the “discretionary” 12.5% gratuity added to your bill). Cocktails are priced around a tenner, which is average for this neck of the woods. There is no doubt you are paying for the location (a hop and a skip to Liverpool Street), the décor (certainly interesting and different) and the lack of competition (there are very few of these joints in London, never mind the City), but even with all of the quibbles it is still a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
That said, food-wise there is better value to be had elsewhere in London – such as any of the Marroush empire in the less salubrious surroundings of Edgware Road, but Kenza has its place and is worth a look.
10 Devonshire Square
London EC2M 4YP
020 7929 5533
Mon – Fri 12:30 to 3:30pm (Lunch)
Mon – Sat 5:30 to 10pm (Dinner)
Closed on Sunday