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Lebanese food is generous, fresh and full of flavour. Nick finds new restaurant Abd el Wahab an oasis (sic) in an area not always known for any of that.
Not so very long ago, Middle-Eastern restaurants were mostly frequented just by middle-eastern people and mostly men. They were all concentrated down the Edgware Road and were rather dark and mysterious places.
I never felt entirely comfortable going in, feeling that I stood out like Boris Johnson at a Momentum meeting. It wasn’t that the people were unfriendly, it was just the menu was hard to decipher and the waiters often impatient and monolingual.
This changed with the arrival of Comptoir Libanais, its vibrant colours, cheerful canteen feel and user-friendly menus made the cuisine of the Arab-speaking world far more accessible, and not just in the evening either but from breakfast to closing time.
Abd el Wahab, which has just opened, started in Lebanon in 1997 and now has restaurants in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Bahrain and Qatar. All centres of money of course and this new location in London is also where a lot of the old money hangs out.
It looks quite small from the outside but once in you soon realise it’s a lot bigger. The front of the restaurant has small tables while in the central area there’s a big dining table for large groups
J and I, frozen through from battling the ice-laden winds of The Beast, were happy to sit and people watch as we peeled off layers and layers of coats, scarves and hats.
As is usual in traditional Lebanese restaurants, a platter of fresh salad and vegetables, pickled vegetables and olives was placed on the table. As is traditional with me, I largely ignored it. I like the pickled vegetables and olives, but the salad and vegetables leave me cold.
Oh, but I do love my mezes. I’m not a vegetarian but I don’t eat a lot of meat either and few cuisines offer so much vegetarian variety as Middle Eastern. A gorgeous homemade hummus was served, rich and creamy and happy to be scooped up with the flat breads.
Another dip, this time of Mouttabal; char-grilled aubergine with tahini was incredibly smoky, just as it should be. A plate of Batata – fried potatoes with garlic, coriander and chilli – was something I’d not come across before, but you can’t go wrong frying potatoes can you.
I’ve never had a bad tabbouleh either, it’s always a feast of freshness and here they rang the changes a bit by using trendy quinoa and not bulgur wheat. Packed out with chopped parsley, cherry tomatoes, spring onions and mint and dressed with olive oil and lemon dressing it was summer in winter.
A plate of cheese in pastries also went down well, apparently one had mozzarella in it, which I think must be unusual but gave it a marvellous creaminess, and we both loved a plate of tiny lamb pieces fried and dressed with the magic tartness of pomegranate molasses. It was just the thing to mix with lamb, whose fattiness can sometimes put me off.
As usual, despite good-natured warnings from the willing, but not always yet 100% able, staff we’d eaten too much already. And I’d gone a bit Grace Dent on the wine too (a rather good Lebanese red, as it happens), so I was not in full racing trim for the meat course.
Still it was impossible to resist; simple well-grilled meats with a crust on the exterior and a deep succulence inside. We could relax and eat slowly, occasionally adding some bits of the mezze and meat to flatbread and making meat wraps out of them.
We were in no hurry to go back out into the blizzard and thankfully the restaurant seemed in no hurry to see us leave. We toyed happily with a plate of fresh fruit, the pineapple artfully sliced and easy to eat, and finally re-layered ourselves for the cold walk to Sloane Square tube.
There’s nothing blingy or overtly clichÃƒÂ©d about Abd el Wahab, it’s designed as a restaurant to bring friends and family to for good food in a relaxed environment and it succeeds.
I felt as at home there as the many middle eastern men and women at the other tables and I reckon Boris would have passed a pleasant evening there too.