RESTAURANT REVIEW: KUUMBA DU FALAFEL (2016)
Me Bld. 1F 23-1, Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku.
Open Tue-Sat, 11h-14:30h & 17:30h-21h; Sun & hols, 11:30h-19h.
Nearest Station: Shinsen. Tel: 03-6416-8396. (Link)
Originally published in Metropolis Japan on June 16, 2016 (Link)
It’s unlikely you’ll stumble upon Kuumba du Falafel by accident. Tucked into the ground floor of a highway-side building in Shibuya, its sole identifier is a cardboard sign in the window.
Nonetheless, it looks like the secret’s out. The modest lunch counter’s seven or eight bar stools were packed shortly after opening for lunch, with hungry patrons squeezed in for the chance to taste Kuumba’s fresh, refined take on its namesake Middle Eastern staple food.
Kuumba is modestly-sized, but floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of light and make the restaurant feel much bigger than it is. If you’re familiar with the falafel as humble street food, the prices seem a little inflated, too. But while Kuumba’s larger portions aren’t cheap (a hearty falafel plate is ¥1,580) their standard lunch set is only ¥1,000 and includes both a half-size falafel sandwich and small bowl of lentil soup (available from 11:30am-2:30pm, Tuesdays to Sundays).
I start things off with an order of Waiola’s 100-percent coconut water (¥280). It’s a small serving, but the juice is sweet and refreshing, with a full-bodied flavor that pairs well with the rest of the menu. If coconuts aren’t your thing, Kuumba also offers a selection of organic sodas and a small wine selection.
While the meal is being prepared, my server delivers a faux-paper plate made of china and gleaming cutlery. It’s a nice addition that signals the haute departure from the standard falafel you may be familiar with.
My soup arrives first, a hot bowl of garlicky lentil broth cut through with earthy cumin and onion. It’s surprisingly thin for lentil soup, but with a warm, buttery taste, and a small pile of sunken lentils add a nice texture when mixed with the broth.
The main event arrives only a few soup spoonfuls in: Kuumba’s falafel sandwich, handed to me across the counter in thin parchment paper. At first glance, it’s like a bouquet of wildflowers, and smells just as fresh. It’s quite a presentation—big leaves of red lettuce, lightly fried eggplant slices, fresh basil pesto, and chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers that barely fit inside. I’m given a tube of house-made hot sauce that’s a bit thick and hard to evenly distribute, but packs serious bite and adds amazing flavor to the sandwich.
There’s a lot to look at, but the best bits are hidden inside. Pickled purple cabbage has a good crunch and tanginess, complemented by some unexpected but welcome capers. A generous scoop of hummus doesn’t overpower but adds a great texture to the sandwich and plays well with a lacing of cool, creamy tahini. The pita bread is soft and thin, but with enough substance to keep it from getting soggy.
Surprisingly, the falafel balls aren’t the focus here. They’re well done—small, with a nice crunch that melts into a soft, chewy center—but they aren’t the star of the sandwich.
It’s a stellar offering but a total mess to eat, which makes it especially well-suited to counter-style seating. And with everyone facing the same direction, you don’t have to worry about getting clocked with a faceful of hot sauce.
Service is quick and attentive, and the menu is in both English and Japanese. Sure, you might need a smartphone to help you find it, but Kuumba du Falafel is well worth the effort.