Middle Eastern

Palmyra, Moseley

One of the things about this blog that I find tricky is how to address the decline in standards. I eat out three, maybe four times a week, frequently in the same places. I don’t write about all these meals because a) I can’t arsed, and b) it would be incredibly boring for you to hear about my 176th meal in a place that never changes its menu. It would be naive of me to think that any place keeps to the same level week-in-week-out for years on end, yet my words on a restaurant are merely a singular snapshot of one meal that I’ve had. This I’m extremely aware of. There are presently places – iconic places at that – in Birmingham city centre that I would avoid because I don’t think they are as good as they should be, and likewise there are a few which are marginally better than when I first went. It is a balancing act to know when to steam in on these places, when to praise them, or when to just leave them alone. It is a balancing act that I am yet to master, mostly because I am really shit at balancing. I can tell you that the last pizza we had at Otto was the best we’ve eaten from there, that Bonehead has hit a consistent stride just in time for the head chef to leave, and that my patience with Lewis’s has pretty much ran out.

Damascena is one of those places. It’s probably ill practice for me to mention the competition for a similar restaurant that I am about to rave about, but the truth is Damascena is not as good as it used to be. We used to eat from there once a week. Then once a fortnite. Now hardly ever. The standard has dropped, and I have no problem mentioning this because I wrote to them to tell them some time ago. They wrote back to say that the chef had left, that they had probably lost focus opening other stores, and that yes, they aren’t as good as they used to be. It was an answer that was refreshingly honest and infuriatingly blood boiling in equal parts.

But fear not, Dear Readers. Both of you. We have a new kid in town and hopefully this one won’t be tripe in two years time. Palmyra, I gather, comes from a previous employee of Damascena, and is located about 40m away from said establishment. It is absolutely-no-doubt-at-all better than the place over the road: the only questions are whether it is better than Damascena ever was, and if it is the best of its kind in the entire city, to which I say yes on both fronts. The decor is loud and boisterious, with more gold than a rappers mouth and the subtlety of a footballer’s wardrobe. I settle on the soft furnishings by the window and subsequently get told off for not ordering at the counter. I order a mezza for one and strike a deal to add meat to the hummus for an extra quid. I also add barrata harrah and a drink, taking my bill up to the heady heights of £17.09. Please keep that figure in mind.

From that mezza is a tahini heavy hummus, possibly a little overworked, topped with chicken shwarma that has crisp fat and delicate meat. It has a fattoush salad, sharp and spicy, with those addictive shards of pastry that add bite. There is a bowl of fuul with lingering heat, full of ripe tomato notes and thickened with blitzed up fava bean. It is topped with chopped tomatoes and plenty of fresh herbs, and I take pride in pressing the flat breads against the edge of the bowl and not leaving a scrap. That fuul is remarkable, as is the falafel which is the best I’ve eaten anywhere. The coating has been fried to a crisp, the inside soft and dissipating in the mouth. It is how I imagine falafel should tastes but never does. I plough through the two slices of salty halloumi, leaving the olives and salad to be boxed for later. Its a lot of food for what is normally (meat free) £9. It could easily feed two people. The barrata harrah is completely unnecessary but so good. A huge portion of spicy potatoes with flavours that refuse to sit still. Again, as good as I’ve eaten anywhere.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that I enjoyed Palmyra a lot, so much so that I attempt to personally thank the chef whilst paying. He doesn’t see me; he’s too busy dancing in the kitchen. It’s probably for the best. I’ve found somewhere that I love again: a little place down the road from me that serves the most incredible middle-eastern food full of vibrancy and flavour. I really hope that in two years time I’m not moaning about them too, though for now I’ll just take having them around.

9/10

Moseley a little tricky to get to? Let A2B do the hard work

Marmaris, Kings Heath

To get to the subject matter of this review, we must first look to Hana, which was the intended piece prior to its premature demise. Word of Hana spread faster than chlamydia in a Magaluf hotel when the signage went up, promising Moseley the enviable position of places that offer Middle Eastern food on three sides of a four-sided crossroad. It eventually opened to little attention, with balloons in the doorway and a couple of pissed-off looking waitresses sat bored in the window. The menu was not what I expected; yes, they had shwarma and baba ghounoush, but they also had kebab burgers with fries and salad, which isn’t instinctively the food that springs to mind when I think of Lebanon. Quickly stories spread on both of Moseley’s Facebook community pages (yes, we have two in Moseley: one ran by despot dictators, the other by a local drunk); unattentive service, incorrect dishes, cash only, and the refusal to give receipts were just some of the reasons I was desperate to go. No one seemed to like it, which made me want to go even more, though the same name popped-up on a reoccurring basis. Marmaris. I’d never heard of it. “It’s not as good as Marmaris”, everyone said, which made this horrid know-it-all seethe at my phone screen. When Hana closed prematurely after three weeks following a Facebook arguement with a paying customer and a waitress there was only one place I was going for koftes. I had to go deep into Kings Heath to see if Marmaris was any good.

It’s not what I expected. From the outside it looks like the kind of place that prides itself on a two out of five hygeine rating, not helped by the Just Eat stickers on the door and an unenviable position next to quite possibly the roughest Wetherspoon in South Birmingham. Inside they have spent at least nine quid on the decor with a few hard chairs and tables to sit at whilst the boss loudly berates the staff for burning bread. They have kebabs with chips and salad, though they also have a glass counter with various bits of impaled chicken and sheep. A lot of cling film is used here: on the hummus, the meat, the rice. I consider wrapping myself in it to protect my clothing from the smoke that leaves the grill and attaches itself to anything of value. That smoke shares the same values as many of my ex girlfriends.

We order too much with a couple of soft drinks and just tip past £30 between two. We can’t decide whether to eat the hummus or hang wallpaper with it, though are rewarded with a version that is light on tahini and heavy on both garlic and lemon when we opt for the former. A salad starts off great but quickly bleeds pickled red cabbage into everything else, and then there is the smoked aubergine dish with kofte and spicy tomato sauce that bears no resemblence at all to the same dish on the wall. The aubergine is lost in a sea of yogurt, with a sauce that tastes like a thickened Heinz soup. It is saved by the meat. That meat could save just about anything.

There is only one reason to be here and that is the grilled meat. They understand protein here better than they understand English, marinading until the proteins start to break down before grilling until that marinade catches at the edges.  A grill for two has some of the most tender chicken I can recall eating, and cubes of lamb with smokey ribbons of fat that yield just enough bite. There is minced chicken kofte and minced lamb kofte, both excellent, treated with the same amount of love and respect. I thought I’d eaten very good renditions of these before: I hadn’t compared to this. This comes with bulgar wheat and rice, a garlicky yoghurt, piquant chilli sauce and flat bread that tastes almost cheesey. All of this is £17. I wish we’d saved the bother and ordered two.

Service is exactly what you’d expect from a business used to pissed-up idiots from Wetherspoons, in that it’s hardly accommodating. We were supposed to be offered a choice of meat with the aubergine let-down but wasn’t, and don’t even think about enquiring about a half portion of the lamb chops. Even a drink mis-order was met with a stare when I dared to question it. But all of this is fine. For 40 minutes I am a tourist in a world I don’t see frequently enough. One full of hustle and smoke, where the emphasis is feeding over pandering. One where cash is king and ego is disregarded. One which has mastered the art of cooking over fire as well as any stuffy steak house with a josper. Facebook was right; Marmaris is ace.

8/10

Just because we never took an A2B doesnt mean that you shouldn’t.

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.

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