Lebanon has seen many overlords come and go. From the Ottomans to the French, the Israelis, the Americans and the Syrians, the country has seen a lot of jackboots. But, it has also hosted a lot of cooks, resulting in a cosmopolitan culinary heritage.
Comptoir Libanais brings together many of these strands with great success. We visited the chain’s newest branch, not far from South Kensington tube, not knowing exactly what to expect. Would the fare be a glorified kebab shop? Or would it go the opposite direction, offering a dazzling adventure in the culinary anthropology of Lebanon, but mystifying its diners?
Thankfully, Comptoir Libanais straddles any such divide, offering distinctive twists on many dishes that British palates will be familiar with, along with a wide range of Lebanese specialities that they might not.
To begin with, there was no escaping the meze platter, which offered good value at £6 each, with a large helping of fresh, crisp tabbouleh and just about enough hummus and baba ghanoush to get by. The falafel was exemplary and, though a little sparse, the pickles likewise. The only gripe about the starter selection is the price of the dishes not offered as a platter. Over £6 for a ‘halloumi steak’ seemed a little much, even with a delicious fig and rose jelly.
Although it raised an eyebrow from our waitress, we also felt obliged to try the Arak (aniseed flavoured strong liquor), which proved a potent opener. For the more conventional drinker, there was a selection of Lebanese wines (we chose a tidy Merlot from the Bekaa Valley). Arak, we learned, is probably a dessert kind of drink.
Main courses revolve round the staples of kibbeh (cigar shaped lamb kebabs served with a yoghurt dip) and tagines, but there is a broad selection of Lebanese salads to choose from. Vegetarians are well catered for, and the aubergine tagine was rich – but not overly so – and more than enough to satisfy.
The lamb kibbeh, while appearing slight at first, turned out to offer sufficient meat and cool yoghurt to please meat eaters, even with the hint of haggis that they suggest. And the mains in general complement a generous helping of meze to start, without being either too expensive or resulting in masses of wasted food.
Although the service is prompt and friendly, it pays to have a look around the restaurant, which serves as a coffee house, breakfast venue, delicatessen and, we were pleased to find out, a vendor of ornately decorated hand bags. The bags, which sat like inflated Klimts around the walls, may or may not have represented good value, but they are better than bare walls. And they are better than the enormous (and slightly Stalinist) grinning portrait of Sirine, the icon of the chain, which immediately greets the diner.
Dessert though, was excellent. A combination of fig jam and yoghurt and walnut baklava rounded off the meal beautifully, and try the orange blossom infusion known as Café Blanc as well, if only for the aroma. Don’t miss out. At around £25 Comptoir Libanais represents good value, healthy food and a bit of gaudy couture, if that’s your bag.
1-5 Exhibition Road