he Rosslyn Arms was always one of my favourite Hampstead pubs, on the incline that stretches from Chalk Farm tube right up to the Heath.
Delightfully shabby-chic, it had a naturally distressed central bar and well-worn tables and sofas dotted about. It was also one of the first neighbourhood bars serving negronis in the casual, pubby way, at perhaps a fiver a pop. And its basic courtyard garden was popular with the late teenage kids of the wealthy families in the area – perhaps because it was so unpretentious.
Doesn’t ring a bell? You may instead remember its previous incumbent, the appallingly-named Bar Room Bar (or perhaps even, erm, the Lord George, its original moniker when it was built back in 1874).
Anyway, the site closed a few years ago – and then nothing. Boarded up seemingly forever, I assumed it would just become flats. But sure enough, earlier this year it relaunched as Café Hampstead, a rather unimaginative name presumably designed to maximise its SEO credentials (it must definitely come up as #1 search on Google).
And yet the unrecognisable interior is now delightful: there’s a casual daytime café with curved counter at the front, and a light glass-ceilinged atrium dining room behind, all house plants and sizzling open kitchen. Delicate bucolic framed prints line the walls, a light reference to the famous adjacent green spaces.
An immediate observation as we enter? The tables for two are far too close together. In fact, there’s almost no way out for the diner who chooses to sit on the comfy banquette.
And so to the food: the schtick is Tel Aviv-inspired plates, so lots of Middle Eastern spices and – at lunch anyway – a handful of dishes in sections marked Baking, Small Plates, Grill and Large Plates. (Obviously, it’s a versatile dining and drinking emporium, with breakfast, brunch, dinner and even a cocktail bar in the upstairs area.)
Jazz tinkles away as we eat, while service is slightly erratic, with the staff at one point almost circling us as we finish, eager to clear our plates on what’s a quiet late Friday lunch service.
This is box title
Fried Cauliflower (£8)
This small plate is piled high with the fractal florets, bronzed like golden nuggets of treasure. Firm and with plenty of bite, on a healthy slick of tahini, they’re scattered with diced tomatoes and parsley. A generous portion, it’s one to share, not hog.
Heritage Tomatoes (£10)
There’s an agreeably charred edge to the squishy yellow and red seasonal tomatoes and deep dark richness of the tomato relish. They sit on a light crème fraiche adorned with thyme-heavy za’atar and sage. A corker.
Marinated Prawn Kebab (£14)
Eight of the bleeders, marinated in Moroccan spices, are skewered on a plate, subtle and smoky, all evidence of shells removed for ease of munching. Strong chargrilled flavour for sure (as there should be from the section marked ‘Grill Over Coal’) and a heady dip of harissa and aioli, with a tangy if simple salad. A few points deducted for the prawns being slightly overcooked, less melt-in-the-mouth than hoped for.
Hanout lamb cutlet (£22)
Head Chef Aviv Lavi’s plates are mostly rustic in appearance. Unseasonally autumnal in its blend of browns, creams and yellows, this dish boasts cutlets marinated in fragrant hanout (something akin to “the best spice mix ever”) that yield depth of flavour, though could have been pinker inside; still, the edges are pleasantly charred. We really like the smooth bed of Jerusalem artichoke; only bland cubes of turnips and swedes are redundant.
Chocolate mousse (£6)
This pot is concocted from Belgian chocolate and butter, although we’re convinced we can taste coconut. Akin to a liquid Bounty bar, it’s adorned with raspberries on top. Safe, but not a bad thing – rather like the restaurant itself.