If there’s one area of the city centre that’s seen a huge renaissance in recent years, it’s Preston Street. Go back 25-30 years and it was in its heyday with a thriving International restaurant scene – including the city’s best Chinese restaurants – but the 2008 recession hit the area hard and the road hit the skids somewhat.
Over the past five years or so, thankfully things have completely turned around and it is home to possibly the most exciting and creative grouping of independent food and drink businesses in Brighton and Hove. With great cocktail bars such as Medusa and Gungho – the latter of which was recognised at number 44 in this year’s UK Top 50 Cocktail Bars – and the likes of Bincho Yakitori, Nanninella pizza, Goemon Ramen Bar and Halisco Mexican, I’d go so far to say this little corner of the city is the street food hub.
So it was with interest when I was invited to visit Zarqa, the new incarnation of the restaurant and bar at the Selina hotel at the bottom of Preston Street. The hotel has been there for a few years and prides itself on its eco-credentials, in particular the evident use of upcycled furniture which gives both bedrooms and public spaces a cosy and relaxed yet very ‘now’ feel.
I believe the restaurant space has been reinvented a couple of times, which perhaps isn’t surprising in the context of the turbulence of recent years, but the new Zarqa with its Middle Eastern theme fits perfectly in the existing interior design scheme.
My supper guest – a friend and long time hotel manager colleague – and I were very warmly greeted at the bar by manager Jack. Before you could say bobs-your-uncle we had aperitif negroni cocktails in-hand; to be honest I thought they were a little on the sweet side for my palate but I guess the bar team know the market better than I. Just moments later, some complimentary roasted nuts and olives appeared which were a welcome touch that other venues should take note of.
As we perused the food menu, it was hard not to be impressed by the view from the dining room onto the seafront. Although the bustle of Kings Road isn’t always the prettiest, you’ve got the sea, West Pier, i360, bandstand… unfortunately when you have all the windows slid open then you also get the traffic noise but perfection is an ideal not a given.
The menu is quite succinct and clearly aimed at the idea of sharing. Dips and chips are £5 each and would make for great snacks with a drink or two. Small plates are £8-17 with plenty of vegetarian options.
We opted for the Hummus Complete with tahini, harissa and zhug hot sauce accompanied by pitta and – for some reason unknown to me – a boiled egg. All great examples of these dips and definitely home made; the spicy harissa chilli tapenade was particularly memorable.
Other dishes were particularly juicy prawns in a garlic, herb and chilli sauce – my partner thought that it would be great with linguine pasta which gives you the idea of the flavour profile. The pittas stuffed with marinaded then flash-fried vegan lamb were fantastic – they had all the taste of lamb but without the fattiness that lamb mince inevitably has. It really goes to show not only how far meat-substitutes have come but also how good they can taste when prepared with love and consideration.
Without doubt the stand-out dish was the ‘Aubrûlée’ – smokey aubergine hearts blended with goats cheese, pomegranate reduction and dressed with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and herbs. I could’ve eaten this twice over and it will be entering into my annual pantheon of top ten Sussex dishes; it was one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.
These were all hearty portions – all served with endless pittas – so I’d say you could comfortably dine with a wine or beer for around £25. There are enough plant-based choices and dishes can be tweaked for gluten free diners.
By the time we’d had our ample fill and headed to the door at around 7.30pm, the restaurant and bar was starting to fill up with couples and groups, some no doubt drawn to the buy one, get one free happy hour that runs from 7-9pm on Thursday to Sunday evenings. As there are regular DJs and entertainment, I dare say that the chilled daytime and early evening atmosphere gets more lively as the night moves along so if you’re after more intimate dining then a call ahead would be advised.
If I’m perfectly honest, I had preconceptions of what this restaurant and bar would be but I was proved very wrong. It more than holds its own amongst the better eateries in this part of town in terms of the quality of food, great service and affordability. And that seafront view ain’t bad either.
Zarqa at Selina Hotel, 135 Kings Road, Brighton BN1 2HX
01273 916 601 • https://www.selina.com/uk/brighton/