Monday 16 April 2018

Food Review: Comptoir Libanais, Grand Central

Admit it, you're not actually sure what Lebanese food is. If you're anything like me, you may have an idea of Lebanese food resembling Iranian or Middle Eastern food. I was certain there would be lots of meat involved and probably some kebabs, but that's pretty much as far as I got.

Comptoir Libanais opened three weeks ago at Grand Central, Birmingham. Located just above New Street station, things are changing very quickly around here with a new Fish and Chips restaurant just opened, and another two new restaurants on the way.

With a number of restaurants across the UK, most of these are clustered in London and the South East.

Promising to serve Lebanese and Middle Eastern food, I was invited along to try out the menu.

With a queue outside the door, it was clear to see that Birmingham has an appetite for new restaurants, and we're fast becoming a city of foodies. Seating was slow even though we had booked, but menus were available for the wait. The front of the restaurant is open and enticing, with a huge table of baklava and sweet treats to one side, and a wall of exotic goods such as tea and Turkish Delight on the other.

Taking a seat at the back of the restaurant, the market bazaar theme continued inside, with rows and rows of straw bags and silver trays for sale, set off with an array of colourful fez's which were sadly not for sale.

To drink, I decided I had to try a traditional lemonade, so went for the Vodka Roomana, a pomegranate and orange blossom lemonade (£7.95).  I'm fairly sure there's a tradition of drinking sugary fruit based drinks in the Middle East. This one was indeed sweet, and the orange blossom was an unexpected flavour.  Next time, I'll probably go for a mint tea as the flavours would be more subtle with a meal.  The most interesting drink on the menu was a Lebanese spiced hot chocolate made with halwa, cinnamon and tahini.

To start, I had to try the mezze platter, made gluten free for me which meant the tabbouleh, freekah salad and warm pitta bread were excluded. I did try the falafel, halloumi, hommos, pickles and baba ghanuj however. I would have liked to see a gluten free pitta bread on the menu to allow for some dipping, but appreciate this can't always be accommodated.  The mezze I did try was delicious, and my favourites were the falafel and halloumi. The flavours were near identical in these, the pickles and hommos as anything I have tried in Turkey.

My dining companion had the marinated jawaneh, chargrilled marinated chicken wings with garlic, lemon and pomegranate molasses. These were a good size, cooked well with just enough chargrilled flavour, finished off with the sweetness of the pomegranate molasses. To anyone who hasn't tried this sweet condiment, get yourself down to your nearest Waitrose and pick a bottle up! It adds instant flavour to any salad with very little effort.

For mains, I picked the mixed grill (£13.95), whilst my companion had the Lebanese lamb and halloumi burger (£9.45). I swapped the vermicelli rice for batata harra, spiced cubes of potatoes with red peppers, coriander, garlic and chilli.

My dish was a hearty one of lamb kofta, chicken kofta and chicken shish, that alongside the potatoes made for a filling dish for one or something smaller for two. The chicken kofta was my favourite; soft, tender and subtly spiced. The potatoes were nice but could have been crispier. I adored the salad and could have eaten a whole bowl of this, seasoned with sumac.

The lamb burger was again, very filling and dense, but the halloumi was a highlight.

As much as I should have resisted, there were two gluten free cakes on the menu and I couldn't resist. Saving the dark chocolate orange and cardamom tart for next time, I picked the orange and almond cake (both £4.95).

This cake was without doubt the highlight of my meal. Soft, moist and lightly flavoured, with a little bit of sticky glaze on top, I could eat this every day... but won't.

Based on what I ate, Lebanese food is extremely similar to Turkish food, so anyone who has ever holidayed there will be familiar with the style of cooking and flavours used. Baklava, houmous, halloumi, pickles and kebabs are all dishes that I've eaten and enjoyed in Turkey.

The dishes we ate were filling and flavoursome, perfect if you're not keen on spicy foods full of chilli and heat. Instead, the flavours are more subtle including onions, garlic and sumac.

The interior was an absolute delight, full of trinkets that you can't help but adore, whilst the Comptoir Souk was exactly that, a treasure trove of unusual Middle Eastern food treats that are great for yourself or as a gift.

Comptoir Libanais is well worth a visit. If you're gluten free, there's plenty to try, and the cakes especially are going to blow you away. Come with an appetite and you won't be disappointed.

*With thanks to Comptoir Libanais for the complimentary meal.

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