Middle Eastern

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

Button Factory, Birmingham

I was late to our dinner reservation because I’d been singing Toto’s ‘Africa’ in a park with a group of strangers. Why, I’m not entirely sure, but I enjoyed it greatly even if my girlfriend moaned incessantly about the temperature throughout. Soon after we were cosied up within the bare-bricked confines of the Button Factory, me with a Smokey Old Fashioned and her wearing the disapproving look only a glass of diet coke induces. I’d go through many more of those before we end the evening and those looks would become more and more menacing. It turns out that standing in the cold watching your boyfriend channel his inner 80’s rock god and following it up with him getting wasted is not everyone’s ideal night out. You can’t please everyone, it seems.

Still, Claire ended the evening happy and replete. There is some genuinely good stuff going on at the Button Factory, like properly good in a way I honestly did not expect. From the small plates section comes some of the best hummus in the city. The key is the texture, smooth, with coarser chunks of chickpea mixed in for interest, and the dusting of nutty dukkah over the top. It never bores, and that is an achievement for a dish as universally bland as hummus. The same goes for battered calamari that are greaseless and cooked without any chewiness, and lamb kofta, smokey and delicately spiced that are lovely, moreish things. Only the ‘nduja croquettes fail to hit the spot, with not enough of the spicy sausage to penetrate the mashed potato.

The pork and chorizo burger has never left the menu here and I can sort of see why. The burger makes full use of the josper grill here, imparting a smokiness on the crust that works with the mixture. It fills a hole without ever becoming special in the same way other parts of the menu do, parts such as the flat iron chicken. That chicken, oh my, brined, cooked in the water bath and then blasted on the Josper, its salty and charred and as good as any chicken I’ve eaten in a very long time. For a minute or so we put everything else aside and concentrate on finishing the bird, only returning to the other plates once the task is completed.

Of the sides we select a take on kimchi with fennel that is a pungent thing which works so well with the chicken, and sweet potato dressed in a yogurt that soothes and occasionally pops with chilli heat. The latter is brilliant and laughably cheap at £3. We finish with an arctic roll, a dessert that I was eating when my girlfriend was minus six in age. It’s well made, with plenty of lemon sharpness, and the various raspberry elements all feel warranted. The dish was recommended to us with good reason.

The menu reads well and I had been wanting to eat here before, but holding me back was that nagging feeling that they would not be able to do justice to the Middle Eastern influence that runs through the menu. I was wrong. The use of spice is subtle, there to lift flavours and stop the smokiness from the Josper taking over. It’s all very accomplished. And in that chicken, I’ve found a go-to dish that I’ve already been back for.

8/10

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

Damascena, Moseley

So, that award that I’ve been begging people to vote for me on.  I won it.  Officially Best Food Blog in the Midlands for 2017, two years after starting this little old heap of rubbish as a bit of fun.  I happen to love writing this blog; it’s a diary of my hobby, a chance to vent and also to give praise to those that deserve it.  It’s given me headaches, arguably broken up a long term relationship and definitely given me a new partner who shares the same love that I do for edible bits on a plate.  For that alone it is worth it.  It’s opened more doors than it’s shut, introduced me to new friends I’d have never met, and given me a few new enemies.  I’m chuffed to bits that I won.  If you voted for me then I sincerely Thank You.  Honestly, the support I received was genuinely overwhelming and far more than I deserved.

Now enough of the humbleness – that shit doesn’t suit me one bit.  Let’s get back on to the food.  I won this award on Monday night, an evening that cascaded badly into the very early hours of Tuesday with a collection of people that should know better, but rarely do.  When we finally awake the girlfriend decides to treat me to a celebratory lunch a very short stroll away at Damascena.  She does this for two reasons; 1) It is the closest option and she has tiny little legs, and 2) she has impeccable taste.  Of course she does, she’s with me.

Damascena used to be Moseley’s worst kept secret.  We’d whisper it’s name and flock there together for mint tea.  I once sat in there during the depths of winter and watched a man in shorts tell his first date about his troubled relationship with meat.  It’s that kind of place.  I love it, but so does everybody else:  The place is always full, even when they recently opened a second branch in the city centre.  It’s why I used to stick to ordering it on Deliveroo instead of fighting the crowds.

We order way too much food that still fails to hit £25.00 for the two of us.  I insist on the M’sakhan because I always do.  The long marinated brown bits of chicken thigh have tang and pepperiness from sumac and olive oil which seeps on to the flatbread underneath.   Roll it up and chomp away.  Another flatbread is smeared with a course mixture of spiced minced lamb.  It’s pungent and aggressive and possibly the best £3.15 you will ever spend.

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I’ve never had a savoury pastry here before and I know now why.  Its a weak link on the strongest of chains, the cheese and dried mint mixture too bland to threaten anything.  A comment is passed that it tastes like the cheese stuffed pizza crusts which is too accurate and observant to ever come from my mouth.  The proper treatment for bland cheese follows; halloumi marinated and charred, so that the middle only offers relief from flavour.  The pops of pomegranate from the sweet and sharp salad it comes with are a lovely contrast.

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A mezze defeats us and we ask for it to be packaged to take home.  Later on we take the folds of supple flatbread to the best hummus in the city.  We fight over roasted potatoes turned amber by hot spices before dredging them through creamy m’tabal.  Baba Ghanuuj is another home for the flatbread, the aubergine deftly spiked with garlic and showered with lemon acidity.  There are peppers and tomatoes roasted until the texture has merged into one, heavily seasoned and softly spiced.  It’s a lot to take in and we almost forget to pick at the lightly dressed olives.  £7.95 will buy you all of this.

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It’s taken me a long time to properly write about this place, partially down to laziness, though mostly because I shared that same dreadful opinion that us Moseley folk should keep it to ourselves.  It’s a frankly ridiculous notion; food this good should be embraced and shared across the city.  Damascena get flavour as good as anywhere.  Now get in the queue and try it yourself.

9/10

 

 

 

Damascena, Moseley, Via Deliveroo

Mention Damascena and you will most likely get a hushed response like it is a dirty secret. It seems that despite numerous awards and a fair amount of press, some people would still have you believe that this is a hidden gem for only those in the know. It’s not. Everyone knows this is the place to come for the best m’tabal and shawarma, they just don’t want to talk about in case another hipster takes their place on the majlis to sup on chai.  And who can blame them – I hate it when my favourite majlis is taken.

I love it there, though I happen to hate queuing more and I now generally prefer to let those nice people at Deliveroo take the stress away by bringing it to my doorstep. It seems to be a healthier takeaway, one that fills my heart arteries with glee instead of ghee. Falafel may be fried but there is no oiliness to the crisp exterior and we feel no guilt as we dredge it through a thick hummus nutty with tahini. Eighteen months ago I wrote about a little place up the road in Kings Heath when I alluded to Damascana making the best hummus in Birmingham. Its a view that hasn’t changed.

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Minced lamb is loosely compacted and doused in a warm tahini sauce that lifts the meat.  It is fresh with parsley and oregano and best enjoyed piled on to flat breads which are the perfect vehicle from plate to mouth.  Add some of the pickles from the falafel tray and you have something really special. Halloumi is marinated and grilled, the bland cheese taking on the sweet pops of pomegranate and crunch of raw onion.

I always order a m’sakhan flatbread and the counter staff always try not to smirk as I fail to pronounce it.  Order it from inside Damascena and the bread will be layed flat, with the spiced chicken and onion mixture piled on to its centre point.  Here its folded like a wrap, the olive oil seeping in from every angle.  Its as good as a chicken sandwich can be; the tender brown meat long marinated in olive oil and sumac so that it takes on a sharp citrus notes.  Slithers of almonds offer bite, chunks of softly braised onion do not.  When Damascena opens its second premises early next year in the city centre, you could do far worse than make this your lunch of choice.

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Four dishes, enough to feed two, for little over twenty English pounds.  We even had enough left to make a small lunch the following day.  Its cooking of character, the sort you imagine that the team sits to eat together long after that the last hipster has left and enjoys as a communal.  Its a gem, not a secret, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Food this good deserves to be shared on the widest scale possible.

Deliveroo supplied the credit for this meal.  For £10 credit from your first order please use roo.it/simonc3898

Damascena Coffee House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato