52 Poland Street, Soho, W1F 7NQ www.comptoirlibanais.com

Middle Eastern food has never been middle of the road. Nick find that you can always count on Comptoir Libanais to deliver vibrant value.

Many years ago a visit to a Middle Eastern restaurant invariably meant descending a dark staircase to a windowless basement somewhere off the Edgware Road.

There the staff would be friendly enough, but clearly surprised to see a non Middle Eastern person coming in. There might be a bit of a language barrier with the menu and the staff were not usually keen to spend time explaining.

There was also the, totally unfounded, fear that a sheep’s eyeball might suddenly be offered as an hors d’oeuvre and you’d have to make your excuses and leave.

Comptoir Libanais burst on that scene like a party popper, shooting  bright colours, noise and gaiety in all directions. The restaurants were brightly lit, cheerful places and the food easily accessible with happy staff keen to help make sense of a sensible menu.

The brainchild of Tony Kitous who wanted to show off the cuisine of Lebanon as healthy, fast, fresh, fun and inexpensive, the chain has grown strongly with this new branch in Poland Street the latest opening.

It’s recognisable instantly as a Comptoir; the same’souk’ design as ever and one that still comes up fresh each time you see it. Lots of colours, ceramics, a high unstructured ceiling and items for sale such as loukoum (Turkish delight), nougat, pickled baby aubergine, sumac and fruit, traditional pots and Comptoir Libanais cookery books, as well as bags teapots, urns and ceramic home-wear.  Eat or shop? That’s the dilemma.

And there are lots and lots of empty Harissa tins on tables to hold cutlery in a canteen style. They must get through a lot of harissa at the Comptoirs to get so many empties.

Menus are utilitarian, wipe down plastic, and have something for everyone and, because this is Middle Eastern food, that includes vegetarians. Although the cuisine always has meat very much to the fore, vegetables, fruits, nuts and herbs are never far away either.

We had a mixed meze for two to kick off. A daunting sized plateful when it arrived but much of the bulk was parsley, or Tabbouleh. A lot of vitamin C in parsley and I liked its taste with the sharp lemon dressing, although it does get caught in the teeth rather and you have to check your smile in the mirror after,

A very good Baba Ghanuj (as they spell it here) smoky and silky and alive with the pop of pomegranate seeds and the hiss of tahini’s sesame goodness. Also up to scratch is the hommos (sic), well puddled with decent olive oil ready to be cheerfully scooped up with the flatbread and chased down with a pickled chili.

I’m rather fond of halloumi and here is was a little bit under-grilled for my taste but well partnered with tomato and olives, although a bit more mint and thyme wouldn’t have gone amiss.  We both liked the lamb kibbeh and falafel too, all crunchy and steamy and comforting.

Moudardara, a lentil salad, was a textural change and fine if a little uninspiring but of course lentils usually are, they need the spices lavished on them to bring them fully alive.

Overall as a well-priced sharing platter all this hit the spot and I particularly liked my’lemonade’ a Toufaha made with apple, mint and ginger. They’ll even put a vodka in it if you want, but this was lunch so, after consideration, I thought perhaps I’d better not.

Mains were meaty of course, a mixed grill for S which of course was not a mixed grill as we know it in the UK, there wasn’t a grilled tomato or a smelly kidney in sight. Instead there were lamb kofta, chicken kofta and chicken shish taouk and all served with vermicelli rice and some dips.

 S tucked in cheerfully and said it was all as it should be, he reported well-grilled meats, charred outside and moist inside which is the way they should be.  I would have tried some of his platter but he was showing signs of going down with flu so I kept my distance.

I had the chicken tajine with couscous and was not so delighted. It really didn’t give the impression of having been made slowly, instead it was if cooked chicken had been added to a blended sauce at the last minute, as the sauce had not penetrated the meat and the chicken was quite dry inside. The advertised, and to my mind essential, green olives, carrots and preserved lemons all seemed missing, or cunningly concealed. It was all bit lacking, generally.

I asked for some harissa to liven things up and even this seemed less fiery and creamier than I would usually expect from the chaps at La Phare de Cap Bon. The couscous was excellently fluffy and not clumpy and stodgy though.

A plate of gloriously sticky baklavas and excellent wake up the dead coffee sent us back out into the Soho streets replete, which is a posh was of saying totally stuffed. I was groaning a bit on the walk back to the office, but in a happy kind of way.

We’d also drunk a bottle of Lebanese red wine, which was perfectly decent but was contributing to my desire to get to the office sofa as fast as possible.

That chicken tajine aside, the food at Comptoir is really very good for the level it’s aimed at – a fast, fresh alternative casual dining’solution’ and better by far than many of the other options out to seduce you for lunch or early evening with easy eating.

There’s a lot of space outside too, so when summer comes back it will be somewhere to sit and enjoy what looked to be rather tasty wraps and salads.

With breakfast options, as well as children’s menus, Comptoir has everything covered and so this new branch should add to the Middle Eastern magic well established so far.