Lebanese

Comptoir Libanais, Grand Central

2018 has been hard on the chain restaurant. Byron, Jamie’s Kitchen, Prezzo, all closing more frequently than the spam emails they plague us with. It’s a tough market, one they correctly or not will blame on Brexit. I think it goes deeper than that, I believe the diagnosis lies immersed in the hierarchical loins of the business. Where the top can’t see the ground for a thick cloud cover of employee disgruntlement and group standards. The consumer has more choice than ever; restaurants are failing relationships. Show us you love us less and we’ll be off to dry hump the next one in a heartbeat.

I say all of this because I was recently sat in the new Comptoir Libanais, a part souk, part Lebanese cafe in Grand Central. We’re chatting to a lovely PR lady whose suit is almost as bright as the surrounding interior. “Tony the owner is here” she says, “he’ll be over soon to say hi”. Tony is indeed here, camouflaged in the same apron his service team are wearing. He introduces himself after cleaning the vacant table to the side of us. I ask how often he plans on being here, “a lot” he smiles, “it’s only 90 minutes away”. He quickly departs to run over to a table that is looking for attention. His energy is boundless, he’ll probably run here when the trains are down. Maybe this is the key to opening his 21st restaurant during times of austerity.

The menu reads like almost every Middle Eastern cafe style of its kind, which is more compliment than slur. It is built around the grill, one that burns skins intact until the smokey innards can be spooned out, and one that imparts charred edges to meats. We start with mezze, that all encompassing go to plate of cold bits and warms bits. I’m not fussed by the halloumi or the overworked hummus, but I am a bit in love with the zingy pickles and the baba ghanuj that tastes like an aubergine with a forty-a-day habit held into place by nutty tahini and a healthy squeeze of lemon. Through this we dredge fat balls of falafel as good as any in the city. The highest points come with the salads. Both freekeh with green wheat and tabbouleh with cracked wheat and parsley have high notes of acidity that lift everything else on the plate. Flatbreads are plentiful, a phrase I’d like to say more often.

A chicken and olive tagine is fragrant over pungent, the poultry meat and cubes of carrot delicate from a slow braise. Strands of preserved lemon lift the aromatics. By comparison the mixed grill punches with spice and fire. The notes of cumin and garlic are present across the kebabs; one of chicken breast meat, another from the minced thigh meat of the same bird, and a lamb kofta. All three are good, the charred edges, the meat accurately cooked. I’ll look past the slightly clunky rice, because the best bits – a fat soaked flatbread underneath, and a harissa spiked sauce – are genuinely brilliant.

They do healthy desserts here if you are that way inclined. We’re not. Instead we take a chocolate torte which is more cake, and a milk pudding panacotta-like in texture. The former is dense in texture, heavy on chocolate and fragrant with cardamon. The latter is a revelation; a hint of rose water, silky textured with crushed pistachios for bite. It is the must order here.

Service is tight and friendly, an achievement given the growing queue outside the front. They know the menu inside-out, happy to lead and direct when needed. With this we drink a very nice Lebanon red from a list that starts in the late-teens. As we leave we pass Tony talking through the menu with a young couple on a table near the door. They are in safe hands. Yes, Comptor Libanais is a chain, but it is one that has its focus entirely on the customer. If hard work and dedication is a driving factor of success in our current climate, they are going to do just fine in their new spot in Birmingham.

7/10

I was invited to review Comptor Libanais.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Gemmayzeh Nights at Lewis’s, Moseley

I send loads of people to Lewis’s.  In an era of my life where I am still genuinely shocked that people request my opinion, the question of the city’s best breakfast is always met with the corner spot on Saint Mary’s Row.  It’s not because I can practically see what they have chosen from my flat window (though this is a perk), it is because it is the best breakfast.  No fanciful plating, just the finest of ingredients cooked carefully and treated with respect.  And the people who I send seem to agree.  I know this because they are often arse-deep in one of the chairs whilst I am waiting in line for a table.

Now, no more breakfast talk.  I’ve covered it before if you can be bothered to search for it, and my view hasn’t changed.  We’re here for Gemmayzeh Nights, the Lebanese evenings held every Thursday and Friday.  I have to say when I first heard about this I thought it was a curious move given that Lewis’s faces Damascena, with the latter doing the food of the Middle East very well seven days a week.  Still my girlfriend wanted to try it and I have learnt to do as I am told.


We order a very nice bottle of red from an all Lebanese list and order from a menu split into smaller plates and shawarma boards.  Food arrives as and when it’s ready, the first dish being a grilled halloumi dusted with spice and chopped mint that lifts the bland cheese.  Skewers of chicken have zatar, that woody and zingy aromatic, to thank for lifting them well above the norm.  The quality of the meat is superb – it is this ability to source produce that separates them from all else.  


A trio of the more coventional dips arrives with flat bread.  I think that the labneh, strained yogurt to the unwise, has the whiff of Philidelphia cream cheese about it, a notion I am told is ridiculous.  It does.  We both agree that the hummus has a great texture to it – not overly blended to a wallpaper paste as often is the case – and a rich flavour with plenty of tahini and lemon juice.  And we also agree that the baba ganoush could do with more garlic heat against the smokey aubergine.  All three bowls are quickly shammied clean with the flat breads.  We finish up the small plates with fine slices of asparagus, freekah and labneh.  The entire plate is dressed in a bright acidity that lifts all it touches.  It’s a simple thing executed well.  




Given the quality before, the shawarma is frankly a disappointment.  Forget that the crispy potatoes are good, the pickles perfectly made, or the salad well dressed, this dish lives and dies on how good the meat is, making this Death by Lamb.  The meat has little in the way of taste, and has dried out a little due to overcooking.  At £12.50 this is the most expensive dish on the menu and the one I’d probably recommend least.  

This being Moseley village, expect to pay for the experience.  Our bill of £70 includes a £30 bottle of wine, leaving a figure for the food that pushes the top limits of what it’s worth.  It’s a nice night and I admire what they are doing, but if I’m being really honest I’ll be saving the return visits for lazy weekend breakfasts.  

7/10

Gemmazyeh Nights at Lewis’s are every Thursday and Friday