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.
I was invited to review Comptor Libanais.
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