UK / Europe

A bowlful of Middle East in South Ken

Le Comptoir Libanais is one of the newer mid-market, casual dining restaurants to hit London.  With established outlets in the West End, and at both Westfield malls, the latest branch recently opened in South Kensington.

The cafe cum deli feels right at home amidst similar style restaurants, Le Pain Quotidien, Carluccio’s, etc….all good pit stops for tourists and locals who require a convenient meeting place and all day dining options.

Its French name reveals much about Le Comptoir Libanais.  Traditional Lebanese it is not.  For that, Edgware Road beckons, instead a good mix of Middle Eastern favourites make the menu, from Moroccan tagines, to Egyptian foul madames. Goat’s cheese rubbed in Syrian za’atar makes the French influence clear.    A lengthy dessert menu starting with exotic-flavoured macaroons (rosewater and raspberry, saffron and apple, coffee and cardamom), and cakes also creates an enticing patisserie feel about the place.

The atmosphere works – it’s fun and lively and feels like a bazaar, but I’m not sure anyone buys the colourful baskets starting at £19.99, nor the silver teapots, though they’re lovely.

Having spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East, and with a palate for a good shish taouk, I wonder how LCL will measure up.  My date reviews the wine list and is impressed with one of Lebanon’s finest reds: Chateau Musar, but for wine this good, and at £40 a bottle, the absence of vintage seems an important detail to overlook.    Vodka lovers will be thrilled about the 8 vodka lemonades on offer but it does seem imbalanced compared to the one beer on the menu.  Maybe the owner has a thing for vodka lemonade?  For tee-totals, a wide range of fresh fruit juices hits the spot.

We begin with baba ganoush, fattoush salad and foul madames.  The star was the Foul – the flavours are spot on, stewed broad beans in olive oil with a light, fresh tomato sauce.  Baba ganoush is good, but overdone with pomegranate seeds and a heavy dose of molasses which makes a traditionally savoury dish overly sweet.  And the fattoush salad was lovely, but fit in the palm of my hand, which leaves me wondering if global lettuce prices have shot up recently.  The pita bread, however, is wonderfully hot and soft.  I’m guessing they don’t make the pita on-site, but it tastes fresh enough to be believed.

We fare much better with our mains, which actually exceed our expectations.  Let’s be honest, when a restaurant tries to appeal to a large audience with an ethnic focus, but also burgers and fusion food on the menu, it’s sometimes hard to get the original intentions right.  But LCL hits the mark with chicken kofta that tastes totally handmade as it falls apart easily, revealing it’s not been stuffed with breadcrumbs or other additives to keep it together and the fresh mint is flavourful and plentiful.

I hate to admit it, but it’s hard enough to find chicken kofta (as opposed to lamb) in a traditional Lebanese restaurant, never mind one this good.    The shish taouk is well cooked and we have no complaints.  In fact, our request for it to arrive atop the aubergine from the aubergine tagine dish, instead of rice, is met with an agreeable smile.  The aubergine was so soft and caramelised it tasted rich with onions and chickpeas providing an interesting texture.  The lamb tagine with dates is, as my, well, date describes it, “flamboyant” and suffers none of the over-fruitiness that typical Moroccan tagines often do.   The couscous is perfectly pillowy.

We’re too full to try the sweets, though in addition to the cakes there’s vanilla ice cream and fat-free yoghurt with a long list of toppings, from halwa and pistachio to fig jam which all sound refreshing.  Pomegranate and rose mint tea (respectively) are wonderful; just ask them to hold the sugar.

Le Comptoir Libanais has a menu, and a vibe that really work.  You won’t see lots of Lebanese eating here but the place is busy throughout the day thanks to a menu which feels like an invitation for grazing. From late morning coffee and cake to a quick lunch, early supper, or proper dinner with all starting with mezze and ending when you’re too full to decide between a macaroon or baklava.

Le Comptoir Libanais

www.lecomptoirlibanais.co.uk

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