When Giles Coren asked Oz Sabbo why Balady’s falafel was so green, the Israeli restaurateur, answered with typical chutzpah.
“I couldn’t be bothered [to answer] so I told him we put cannabis in it,” he laughs, explaining that the journalist had visited his Temple Fortune restaurant three or four days in a row asking a series of “very weird” questions.
Sabbo, normally working in the kitchen, happened to be behind the counter making falafels when Coren arrived.
“We didn’t really know who he was, so I answered some of his questions nicely and others less so,” shrugs the 35-year-old, who, since receiving Coren’s ten-out-of-ten score for his falafels — plus an eight for his chutzpah — in 2019, has gone on (with the help of brother Li-On Sabbo, who looks after customer service) to open four more branches of his kosher, pita-based bars.
All restaurants are SKA-licensed; two — Temple Fortune and (since Pesach) Barnet — serve meat; three offer a parev vegetarian menu, including sabiche and those five-star crunchy fried falafels, and at JW3’s Baladyt (“the little sister of the Balady”), which opened in February, there is a milky menu.
That menu includes borekas, pastries, labneh and cakes. There’s also a bar where they mix up Arak-based cocktails and serves kosher spirits and wines.
“Balady means local produce — my country, my land. We want people to feel that when they come to Balady or Baldayt, they’re coming home, they’re coming to Israel, they’re coming for the flavours.”
The outlets range in size — some seating 70 while Temple Fortune is barely more than a takeaway.
Most importantly, the Balady brand is taking kosher food to new postcodes — including Hatton Garden and High Barnet — that for years have been devoid of kashrut-compliant fare.
Sabbo’s Moroccan grandma Suzanne Sabbo is in part to thank for this influx of new kosher cafes.
She grew up in Casablanca, moving to Israel in the 1950s. Sabbo remembers her cooking constantly in her tiny flat. “She had a stove with only two burners and cooked in layers — the soup at the bottom, the meat at the top.
She had a one-bedroom apartment with a tiny kitchen and she’d cook for 50 or 60 people every Friday.”
She and Sabbo’s (step) grandfather, Pini Ajara, opened a restaurant called Marrakesh in Jerusalem in the 1950s. “When they started you couldn’t find Moroccan food other than at people’s homes. They created a Moroccan pop-up in a Kazakhstani restaurant that was always empty, and it was a huge success.”
The pair bought out the lease of the premises, which is next to the King David Hotel, and have welcomed a glamorous crowd — the kings of Egypt and of Jordan have eaten there — for more than 60 years.
No surprise then that Sabbo is following in the tradition, having helped in the family business since childhood. Returning to their restaurant after his military service, he knew it was time to leave. “It wasn’t challenging enough as Grandma was in charge — she’s a strong woman — even now she’s there telling everyone what to do.”
After opening a pizza business in Jerusalem in 2008, he decided to travel and learn English. “Whenever my family ask when I’ll be coming back, I say my English isn’t good enough,” he laughs.
He worked his way around the world before coming to London in 2012 — spending time in kosher bakeries and takeaways. “The places I worked in were making Israeli food but for English tastes. They were missing all the flavours — they’d have Israeli salad or white cabbage without seasoning! Israeli food is all about the chilli and spices.”
After creating his falafel recipe for a small falafel chain, he left to open his own place, but after two and a half years of fruitless searching, it was time to bring out the big guns. “I called Grandma and said ‘Savta I need your help.’ She said she had my back.”
That day, he approached taking the signage down from a Temple Fortune store. “They wanted £10,000 for it.
I called Grandma and she sent me £20,000 — I paid the £10,000 deposit and asked a builder friend to help me. We opened for £25,000. Grandma’s only request was that I keep it kosher. I’m a big believer and pray with tefillin every morning.”
With the support of the foodie community he’d built in London, the tiny falafel shop slowly grew, until Coren’s kick-start review two years later brought long queues. “We started with falafel and sabich in the beginning and then slowly, slowly we added more dishes as we saw what our customers liked.”
While the pandemic presented the same challenges for Balady as it did to all restaurants, it also provided opportunity.
“There were a lot of people who closed businesses and landlords who needed money.”
It allowed him to secure premises in places he’d wanted to open in since he started — Hatton Garden and High Barnet, where they now have a store seating 60 to 70 plus a private room that can accommodate 20 with a private kitchen.
And there’s a further site in Camden where he plans on adding shisha and an alcohol licence.
Although the pita is currently sourced from a separate bakery, he wants to bake his own in the future.
“I’m going to Morocco to learn a new way to make pita that could bring it in house.
There is a man who makes it all himself on a small fire. We’re trying to bring old-fashioned pita baked on stone, that we can stuff it as much as we want.”
He’s also hoping to write a recipe book sharing his family stories.“She’s not keen to share her recipes, so I’m calling Grandma with weird questions at strange times that I know she’ll answer without thinking!”
And maybe we’ll see him in our living rooms as he’s also keen to appear on a TV cooking show — “I really want to see if my skills are up to the top chefs or if I’m just good at hospitality.”
Balady is open now at JW3