Comptoir Libanais – Enlivening London Lebanese

Comptoir Libanais
O2 Centre
255 Finchley Road
London NW3 6LU
Website
Map
Note: reservations not taken

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)

Comptoir Libanais succeeds at what it sets out to do: serve good-quality Lebanese food in a fun environment at affordable prices. It certainly makes a good pit-stop if you’re walking through a shopping center and get hungry or if you have a branch near your office, and fits the bill for a quick bite before a film. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat here, but the food we had was good and there is a decent selection of Lebanese wines, plus you can pick up a brightly-colored handbag or pair of shoes while you’re at it!

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.

It was big & bright, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be sh..e

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.

Comptoir Libanais certainly packs a visual punch – it’s (a right old) bazaar

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.

I loved the bright colors everywhere & hoped the food would hold my attention too – just like the fun sign directing me towards the loo (golly, these rhymes are atrocious!)

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).

Behind & in front of the counter

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.

Assorted chillies & pickles

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).

Tabbouleh

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.

Hommos & Baba Ghanuj

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.

Labneh

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).

Assorted Baked Samboussek & Falafel

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.

Lamb & Kofta Tagines

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.

2007 Château Ksara, Reserve du Couvent (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

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).

Various sweets are available at the till when you pay – nom, nom, nom

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.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

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)

Food: 6/10

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.*

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Laya’Lina – A Good Option for Lebanese in Knightsbridge

Laya’Lina
2-3 Beauchamp Place
London SW3 1NG
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Hot & cold mezzes from £3-6, Mains from £12-21, desserts £5-7 + sharing menus at £40 or £50 per person

First of all, I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and I hope you had a great and relaxing time over this holiday season. Sorry that I have been a little bit slack in updating the site in the last month or so; it has been a very busy time at work and I was essentially offline for two weeks during the holiday period. There are many meals from 2009 that I am still planning to write-up (so bear with me), and I also have many exciting plans for 2010 (so stay tuned!).

I would also like to thank everyone for their support and encouragement during the first 6 months of this blog – it has been great to hear your thoughts and comments and also to meet some fellow bloggers. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make my reviews more concise, so let me know what you think as I continue to evolve the format – all feedback is welcome. For very special and/or interesting occasions, I will probably keep to the fuller format, but for others I will try to pare things down.

In that spirit, enough rambling…onto the food…

An inviting email

Mrs. LF and I had been in the mood for some Middle Eastern fare for a good number of days, when up popped an email in my inbox inviting me to review a new Lebanese restaurant in Knightsbridge. I figured what the heck, and asked the restaurant’s PR agent to book us a table. So, please keep in mind that we did not pay for this meal.

 

Laya’Lina is a modern Lebanese restaurant located on a cute little street off Knightsbridge. It serves up capable Lebanese fare, so if you're in the mood for this type of food and somewhere nearby, by all means go. There are a few dishes which would seem more at home on a Chinese menu, but maybe that is their take on 'modern' Lebanese?

 

We arrived on a chilly November evening, and weren’t sure where to enter through the door that seemed to lead straight into the restaurant, or to enter through the bar, which seemed to be the proper entrance. We chose bar entrance, and were led to our table in the ground floor dining room. First impressions were that of a very modern restaurant, with shiny black floor tiles, black tables, and bright blue accent lighting. There was also a little bar on a raised mezzanine level in the back of the ground floor dining room. All of the surfaces are quite hard and angular, and I thought it could do with a bit of softening somehow, especially for acoustics – although it was fairly empty, so this wasn’t a problem on our visit.

 

Shiny, black & blue: even the menus oozed bling

 

Later in the meal, as a procession of middle-aged people dressed to the 9’s began to arrive through the door that enters straight into the dining room (we figured this was the ‘regulars’ entrance), we found out that there was also a downstairs dining room which was mainly used for private events (i.e. live music and belly dancing; more information is available on their website). There was apparently a big shindig that evening to celebrate Eid al-Adha.

The waiter who wouldn’t wine

We eventually decided to go for lots of mezzes and to share a main course. Being quite into Lebanese wines these days, I had looked at the wine list ahead of time and was pondering ordering one of the two really excellent local wines they had listed. When I asked our waiter a question about the Lebanese wines on the list, he replied by saying, “I’m sorry Sir, I don’t drink myself, so I can’t really tell you anything more about the wines.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but Mrs. LF and I agreed that irrespective of whatever one’s personal consumption happens to be, if you are a waiter in a restaurant that serves alcohol, you (or one of your colleagues) should at least know some basic information about the alcohol you are serving. It’s fine if you don’t want to serve alcohol in your establishment, but if you do, you have to expect people will ask you questions about it. Also, it’s a shame because there is a lot of good Lebanese wine, and it should be talked about more (beyond Chateau Musar).

In any case, as Mrs. LF decided she would not be partaking in the alcoholic consumption that evening, and as I felt guilty ordering an expensive bottle for one person (since I wasn’t paying), I opted for the Lebanese wine they had by the glass. It was a 2005 Clos St Thomas, Les Gourmets (£4.95/glass) and I was happy enough sipping on it throughout the meal.

The ‘modern’ mezze

In the meantime, we had been plied with some very tasty green and burgundy olives.

 

Very moreish olives

 

We were quite happy munching on these well marinated beauties, but we didn’t have to wait too long before our mezzes began appearing.

 

Laya’Lina Cold Mezze Selection: Baba Ghannuge, Muhamara, Vine Leaves, Tabouleh (£5.95)

 

The cold mezze plate was really good. The Baba Ghannuge was packed full of rich, smoked aubergine flavor and the tahini was well balanced and came through well also. It was finished off with the traditional sprinkling of pomegranate seeds, which really complements the richness of the dip (7/10). The Muhamara (a crunchy dip of lightly spiced pureed nuts), which I don’t remember having before, was also excellent (7/10). The stuffed Vine Leaves and Tabouleh were both perfectly fine, but not better than those I’ve had at other Lebanese restaurants (5/10).

 

The vehicles for the dips

 

The accompanying pita and flatbread was also good.

In fact, since there was some bread left and we both fancied some yogurt, we ordered some of their Jaigik (yogurt, cucumber and mint). It tasted okay, but it was too watery for both of us; we prefer this type of yogurt dip to be much thicker and unctuous. 4/10.

 

Jaigik: A Salad of Cucumber, Yogurt & Mint (£3.50)

 

We had also ordered a trio of hot mezzes, which came at around about the same time.

 

Cheese Sambusak: Pastry Parcels filled with Cheese (£5.50)

 

The best of the three was the pastries filled with cheese. They were sufficiently crisp on the outside, and the cheese had a lovely texture and seemed very similar to feta cheese to us – it certainly wasn’t bland and boring – having a rather pronounced flavor which we both enjoyed. 7/10.

 

Halloumi Pizza: Grilled Halloumi in Lebanese Bread (£5.50)

 

I liked the idea of the Halloumi pizzas, and they were well executed. The cheese wasn’t too chewy (which can happen if it’s grilled and let to stand for too long), and the base of Lebanese bread was very good. I guess this is a Middle Eastern take on the English ‘cheese on toast’ :), although I’m betting that theirs probably came first. 6/10.

 

Sesame Prawns: Fried Prawns Served with Sweet Chilli Dip (£6.50)

 

Okay, so here is the one really strange thing during our meal. I am no expert on Lebanese cuisine, but I would hasten to guess that prawns deep fried in sesame batter and served with a sweet chilli sauce is not a traditional dish (?!). In fact, it seemed distinctly Chinese to me. It wasn’t that good, as the shrimp were simply too dry and rather tasteless (probably indicating they were frozen), and just didn’t seem to be Middle Eastern food. Sure, shame on me for ordering them, but I was curious – I mean, I’ve never seen that in a Lebanese restaurant. Strangely enough, as Mrs. LF and I were discussing this issue, I happened to finally notice what had been staring me in the face: the wallpaper in the staircase (see below). How else could you describe this pattern besides ‘Oriental’? 4/10.

 

The oriental wall print seemed right at home with the sweet chilli sauce

 

Maybe this was what the owners of the restaurant meant by a ‘modern’ Lebanese restaurant – the ‘modern’ indicating an integration of other cuisines into their menu? I have no idea, but we both thought it was really odd. In any case, we were sufficiently satisfied that our main course would be more what we were expecting.

 

Lamb Paupiette: Aubergine Parcels Stuffed with Seasoned Minced Lamb, Baked in a Tomato & Pomegranate Sauce (£16.50)

 

The main course of Lamb Paupiette was excellent. The rich tomato sauce really shone, and the mince meat was very well-flavored. It was a hearty and satisfying dish that was exactly the right size for a main course. Although we shared it (due to ordering a lot of mezzes), it would have been perfect for one person. The basmati rice was also good and the correct texture. 8/10.

Although we were both pretty full, we still had room for something sweet. I decided to go for the House Dessert, which apparently changes each day, while Mrs. LF decided to have some Baklawa with our fresh mint tea.

 

House Dessert of the Day: Raspberry Crème Brûlée

House Dessert of the Day: Raspberry Crème Brûlée (£5.50)

 

This evening, it was a raspberry crème brûlée, and I enjoyed it a lot. Well crisped on top, it hid a secret layer of raspberry goo at the bottom of the pot, which when mixed with the cream was a formidable combination. Again, not really classically Lebanese so far as I could imagine, but at that point I didn’t really care. 6/10.

 

Baklawa Platter (£6.50)

 

The Baklawa was a bit of a let-down. They were quite hard and nearly all of them seemed to be stuffed with pistachio, so lost interest after the first bite or two. These could be improved as we’ve had much better Baklawa in other restaurants – of course the best if buying it fresh from a specialist. 4/10.

A welcome addition to the neighborhood

We generally enjoyed the food at Laya’Lina. The Lamb Paupiette, Cheese Sambusak, Baba Ghannuge and Muhamara stood out as being particularly good, with the rest being exactly what you expect from a decent Lebanese restaurant, but nothing extraordinary (save, of course, for the deep fried prawns with sweet chilli sauce). The ambience was a bit strange, as it felt a little too ‘modern’ in the sense that the surfaces were all hard and shiny and it didn’t exude any warmth (and it was cold outside, man!). The staff were all perfectly nice and professional, and besides the incident with the wine the service ran pretty smoothly, although I think we weren’t the main focus after the large party began arriving for the downstairs function.

In sum, if you are in the mood for Lebanese food, and happen to find yourself in or near Knightsbridge, by all means go – but I wouldn’t recommend going really out of your way to go to Laya’Lina. That said, I bet the downstairs scene is a bit more vibrant when the belly dancers and/or live music is going.

Rating

Ambience: 5/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 6/11

Wine: a good selection compared to other Lebanese restaurants I’ve been to in London, with a few particularly excellent bottles of Lebanese wine (though at the higher price points)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined once at Laya’Lina for dinner, and the meal was complimentary.*

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