Falafel dipped in freshly made hummus has long been the way to my heart. The crisp outer shell caving into a soft, lightly spiced centre combines so satisfyingly with the garlic. When made in the right way, I can even claim a health benefit due to the iron, fibre, plant-based proteins and B vitamins – all things I’m often told I’m short of as a vegetarian.
So, when the kind folk at Baytea invited amble to try their new vegan menu, I leapt at the chance. It wasn’t all about the falafel – the menu has lots of irresistible Middle Eastern meze options – but it was these chick-pea treats that had me walking with a skip in my step as I headed out on a drizzly winter evening.
Baytea is located at the far end of Foregate street. It’s a part of town which needs a little love – some of the shop fronts are closed, and it can feel a bit abandoned on a Friday night. But, to support this new independent, it’s worth walking a little out of the way.
A Warm Welcome at Baytea
A smiling welcome greets me as I arrive at Baytea, swiftly followed by an Arabic Winter Remedy tea, with sweet honey, lemon and ginger. “This is like something your mum would give you to make you feel better in winter months,” says Amna (one of Baytea’s founders) as she serves it. The restaurant is a combined family effort between Amna, who heads up the marketing side of things, and her brother and sister-in-law who run the restaurant.
We settle in downstairs, close to the buzz of the open kitchen and next to shelves lined with a rainbow of plates and teapots. After a short wait, the spread of vegan-friendly sharing dishes is laid out on the table, including a generous heap of freshly baked Arabic bread. I reach straight for the falafel… It’s everything I’ve been dreaming of. The hummus is thick and delicious, with roasted vegetables and sumac on top. These unexpected toppings are a delight, and I slather the falafel and bread with it, while Amna gives me the lowdown on Baytea.
Baytea is Chester’s newest Arabic restaurant. This family-run independent serves a range of familiar dishes, like falafel, chicken shish and hummus alongside lesser-known plates, like foul moudamas and manakish Arabic pizza. They’ve also added a vegan menu, and are an alcohol-free zone, opting instead for juices and soothing Arabic teas.
In some ways, the concept for Baytea started in Amna and her brother’s, childhood. Growing up in Libya until she was eight years old, Amna says her memories there are filled with the aroma of fusion foods and home cooking. She explains that everything in Arabic culture revolves around food and tea. The Libya of her youth was also all about beach life, blue skies, family and good times. A picture of this place that we so rarely get to see in the UK media. Amna and her family want to share more of Libyan culture and to introduce Cestrians to the food that they enjoy most.
Baytea means my home in Arabic and the restaurant’s menu has aptly been inspired by Amna’s mother’s recipes. Traditional Libyan cuisine has culinary influences from North African and Berber cultures. There’s also a notable touch of Italian in the mix, something that’s evolved since the early 1900s when Libya was an Italian colony.
“Libyan’s prefer to think that their food has influenced Italy,” Amna says, with a chuckle, and tells me that pizza or pasta with tomato sauce is a quick meal they’d regularly throw together at home. For a trained palate, the difference can be spotted in the subtle flavours. According to Amna, the Libyan version has tomatoes slow cooked in a variety of herbs and spices that are distinct from a local Italian.
At Their Best
Apart from the friendly, welcoming atmosphere getting top marks, the delicious food at Baytea is prepared and cooked onsite. This means the flavours are really fresh. Simple things, like rice cooked with rosewater and whole spice, stand out in the meal rather than being relegated as a side dish. Then there are the delicate hints of citrus, light herbs, spices and subtle chilli kicks that play with your palate as you dine on the hot and cold meze.
We really must talk about the Knefeh Cheese Cake, too. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the unexpected love affair it started with my usually-fairly-picky-when-it-comes-to-cheesecake, taste buds. The creamy centre is balanced – not too sweet or sickly – and the crispy shredded pastry, rose petals and pistachio create a moreish texture. There’s also a welcome drizzle of honey on the side to dip into as you please.
Because I’m terrible at making decisions and frankly a little greedy, I’d opt for creating a meze of dishes every time at Baytea. Falafel and hummus are, of course, essential and then I’d add vine leaves, tabbouleh salad, and one of the Manakish Arabic pizzas. The foul moudamas (pronounced fool moudamas) also goes really well with the Arabic bread.
Baytea is still new to the Chester restaurant scene, but Amna says it’s already developed a dedicated following of those who love Arabic coffee and mint tea. Plant-based foodies should follow close behind as a lot of Arabic recipes are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Baytea’s vegan menu makes it easy to choose the best options.
The team at Baytea are keen to share Arabic culture with Chester, and they’ve got some exciting plans for the future. As the restaurant develops, there will be themed nights offering more unusual dishes for people to try. They’re also hoping to host language and calligraphy lessons to give people a chance to learn how to write a few words in Arabic.
Baytea is at the end of Foregate Street, a short walk away from Chester town centre. You can check out their main menu here and ask inside the restaurant to see their vegan list. Or, order via Deliveroo.
*all photos courtesy of Geraint Price*