Mezze £3.30 each, Wraps £4.50, Tagines £6.50, Platters £6.50-9.50, Desserts £1.20-2.95
(If you wish to view the full set of photos, they are available on my Flickr account)
A new place in an old haunt
Well, after my last post, I will try to make this one, short, sweet and to-the-point!
Mrs. LF and I were invited to sample the fare at the recently opened branch of Comptoir Libanais on Finchley Road in North London. It’s located in the O2 Centre (please note, it is in NW3 and is NOT ‘The O2’ arena!), a shopping center I am very familiar with having lived in the general vicinity more or less since I’ve been a resident in London. The inside of the shopping center – which is home to many other eateries (there’s a big YO! Sushi, for example), a few large shops and a movie theater – had a makeover not all that long ago. It has been whitewashed and is all clean lines inside now, compared to the rainforest theme it originally maintained, where squirting water fountains lined the towering escalators.
Lest I not deviate and ramble too long on things other than the restaurant in question, let me come back to Comptoir Libanais. The brainchild of Tony Kitous, who is also involved with Levant, Pasha and Kenza, Comptoir Libanais strives to “bring Lebanese home-style dishes to the High Street…it’s food that’s affordable and easy to know.” Fair enough, then.
I used to frequent Levant, the fun and vibrant subterranean Lebanese world just off Wigmore Street, a number of years ago and always had a good time (the food was often good too). Having passed by the Wigmore Street Comptoir Libanais just after it opened and then having been repeatedly tempted by the one stationed in Westfield’s first floor food court, it was high time I got off my posterior and tried some of their food.
As we walked up to the entryway, it certainly looked inviting and appetizing. There is an open ‘kitchen’ on full display and the colors and design motifs are bright and fun.
One of the first things you notice is that, in addition to the food, there are many other things for sale at this veritable mini-bazaar – everything from a number of Lebanese wines (some decent ones too), handbags, shoes and various spices, tinned/jarred foods and soft drinks.
We weren’t sure whether to sit down and wait for someone to serve us or whether we were meant to order at the counter, so we just went up to the counter and started asking for stuff!
From Kofta to Ksara
Most of what you can eat is attractively displayed at the counter, so it’s quite easy to just start pointing at things that look good (which can make the bill add up if you’re not careful – a clever ploy I suppose, given the relatively low prices of most of the food).
Luckily, as we were guests of the restaurant (yes, please note, we were not paying), we were able to throw caution to the wind (within reason, of course), and literally did just start pointing at stuff. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we were joined by the ever-ravenous @mathildecuisine and @dewilded from Mathilde’s Cuisine, who seem to have become familiar dining partners as of late, and who coerced us into ordering a few more dishes.
After the first round of ordering took place, we dutifully shuffled off to find a table and waited for things to begin arriving. As Mrs. LF and I are quite fond of chillies and pickles, I requested a small sampling for the table, and wasn’t disappointed. They were all quite more-ish and I enjoyed alternating between the other dishes and the little sampling of green and pink (which was kindly replenished a few times for us).
The first dish I ventured to sample was the attractive tabbouleh salad, which lived up to its appearance and was fresh, citrus-sharp, crunchy and chewy. It did the job of opening our appetites – as if we really needed help.
Everyone seemed to like the hommos at Comptoir Libanais except me – I thought it was so-so. A bit more tahina and a tad more seasoning wouldn’t have gone amiss, at least according to my palate. That said, the baba ghanuj was right on the money, displaying that familiar deep, rich and smoky aubergine flavor which was accented by the odd sharp and sweet crimson pomegranate seed.
Whereas the rest of the party felt the labneh (stained yogurt with zataar and olive oil) was mediocre, I actually quite liked it. It’s never going to be complicated, but it was creamy, slightly sour and I appreciated the little touch of herbaceous flavor that the zataar brought to the table (it’s made up of various dried and powdered herbs, most of which are quite common to European cuisine – i.e. oregano, marjoram, thyme – plus a few others such as sumac).
We had also ordered an assortment of baked samboussek, including ones filled with lamb and chicken, of which the lamb stood out as being particularly tasty. The first batch of falafel was a little too dry, but once we told them this, they immediately rectified the situation by making us some fresh ones, which were much better (for the record, my favorite falafel in the area is actually at a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Golders Green). The dipping sauces were punchy and served dutifully as pertinent foils for the baked and fried fare.
We were all slowing down a bit by this point, but thought it our food blogger duty to sample their tagines. They were both perfectly fine, and while they didn’t exactly dazzle my taste buds, they were both satisfying dishes. The lamb was still tender and had a nice, mild flavor which was offset nicely by the sweetness of the prunes and carrots, and the kofta balls were well seasoned and spiced. The cous cous was pillowy, light and flavorsome.
Now, as regular readers will know, I like my wine, and a do have a penchant for those from the Bekaa Valley, home of world-famous Château Musar, amongst others. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the restaurant had quite a nice little offering of Lebanese wines and, despite originally wanting to order a different bottle, our pleasant and garrulous waiter eventually talked us into trying Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent. I am not disappointed that he did, either.
The deeply ruby tinted wine is made up from three grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Syrah (30%) and Carignan (30%) – and is aged in oak casks for 6 months. Ksara themselves say that their wines are marked by a “rare balance of dry fruitiness, of delicacy and coarseness, and of freshness and vigor.” I think this is actually a very apt description for the wine we had. There was a very present red berry fruit flavor, with vanilla lingering in the mouth (but fairly well integrated), and it had a certain roundness to it. ‘Certain’ because it was also quite course, like a good ‘country wine’, and it was indeed quite a powerful wine, belying the fact that it is actually only 13% ABV – I thought it would have been 14%+. In any event, it went down well with the meaty flavors of the lamb dishes and was a very pleasant drinking wine which we all enjoyed. It could also easily mature for another few years in bottle before drinking.
The fun factor
In my eyes, Comptoir Lebanais is attempting to do what Wahaca did for Mexican food in London in the sense that it is trying to make Lebanese food fun, easily accessible, cheap and quick. But of course, there are already loads of Lebanese restaurants in London – many of which provide all of the aforementioned qualities (though most without a real ‘fun’ factor) – whereas when Wahaca was launched, there was a relative dearth of decent Mexican eateries in our fair city. Still, it’s not a bad addition to London’s Lebanese offerings, and I think it will definitely succeed in drawing in those who may not be too familiar with Lebanese food (but may be curious) as it makes the cuisine easily approachable and very fun.
From our experience, the food was pretty consistently serviceable and you can’t complain about the prices – plus it does make a great venue for going out with friends or family for a quick meal, whether before a movie (hence its shopping center locations) or what have you. Ah yes, I forgot to mention, that they do takeaways as well, so you can also grab some mezze to take back to the office! As Mrs. LF pointed out to me, a more apt comparison might actually be a place like Carluccio’s, which has a very vibrant design that shows off the national food culture, and where you can dine in or out and also buy Italian food and wine (whereas Wahaca is more of a proper eat-in-only restaurant, and probably sits more comfortably in the Wagamama set).
I do also like the fact that the staff were friendly and helpful, that they have good Lebanese wine on offer, and that there are lots of other little tidbits you can look at while you wait, whether it be some slip-on shoes or some more tins for the pantry. The packaged sweets on offer when you go to pay your bill are tempting as well.
I would certainly return if and when I get hungry for Middle Eastern food and am in Westfield, the O2 Centre, or find myself walking down Wigmore Street. Hopefully they can keep up their standards over time as and when the chain expands as I think this is a problem many small- to medium-sized London chains have run into after the 1-2 year honeymoon period.
Service: N/A (you order at the counter and they bring the food out to you, though I do have to say they were very friendly and helpful on this occasion)
Wine: as I mentioned above, there is a good selection of about 10 Lebanese wines, many of which are reasonably priced and will prove to be good partners for the food being served.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Comptoir Libanais once for lunch, and it was paid for by the restaurant.*