Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Turkish, Japanese, Greek, Mexican, Nepalese, Thai, American, Caribbean… and, of course, British: it’s possible to take a trip around a world of flavours right here in Bath, without actually leaving the city boundaries. But since Arabesque was forced to close its doors for good when Waitrose took over the Podium shopping centre around five years ago, there’s been a serious dearth of Lebanese/middle eastern-themed options to peruse.
Ah, I fondly remember Arabesque; a tiny, rather unlikely little corner of an erstwhile faceless shopping complex, highly regarded for it’s bargain-priced, non-stop exotic cabaret eat-all-you-like lunchtime buffets and ‘Laurence Llewelyn Bowen does Arabian Nights‘ décor. But as writer LT Hartley so perfectly put it in his 1953 novel The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And while recent SouthGate arrival Comptoir Libanais may have drawn on thousands of years of tradition to put together their reassuringly authentic, traditional middle eastern menus, this small but perfectly formed restaurant chain (currently boasting around 17 branches, mainly in and around London) is most definitely bang up-to-date in their approach.
Decorated along the lines of a souk theme (think, silver tea pots, hand-woven fabrics, vibrant artwork, richly-painted ceramic tiles, etc) and furnished with upmarket, colourful brushed chrome canteen furniture, the vibe is cheerful, bright and welcoming – oh, and if you’re wondering who the glamorous woman whose beautiful smile brands the walls, menus and packaging is, that’s Arabic actress Sirine Jamal al Dine; yup, she’s a real person. And there’s further authenticity behind the knick-knackery than at first meets the eye, too; it’s possible to buy Lebanese larder ingredients here (pomegranate molasses, sumac, Turkish Delight, baklawa, and more) and even, should you so wish, one of those tea pots, a room fragrance and a colourful hand-woven bag to carry your booty home in – so far, so very good indeed. But what about the food?
In keeping with initial expectations, reassuringly compact menus offer a lovely, lively voyage around that uniquely seductive middle eastern flavour profile, with plenty of combinations involving za’atar, Ras el Hanout, mint, cinnamon, pomegranate, rose water, cardamom etc offering plenty to get excited about – even at breakfast time. The post-sunrise array begins with both hot and cold mezze options that move on to include wraps at lunchtime, Lebanese flat breads topped with all kinds of lovely stuff, grilled meats (including a lamb burger, kofta and shish) and all manner of tagines and Chef’s Specials, all prepared to order in an open kitchen. Vegetarian/vegan options are excellent, and pretty much any dish can be tailored to your dietary requirements. As for our requirements – well, we were hungry.
On the mezze sharing platter (huge, fresh and highly recommended; £15.95), textbook-perfect incarnations of baba ghanuj, hommus, tabbouleh, falafel, cheese sambousek, lentil salad, pickles and soft, fresh pitta bread started our foray off in style. On from that, we indulged in a super-silky aubergine tagine (£8.95) that I was reassured was “excellent”, while I opted for lamb with prunes (£10.95). While my lamb/prune combo definitely had its heart in the right place, it was a little bit light on lamb and slightly dry for my taste, but a side order of labneh smoothed any such glitches admirably. A late arrival at our table meant that we needed to order another main course, in this instance an abundant salad of pomegranate molasses-marinated salmon served with avocado couscous bathed in a lively sumac and lemon dressing (£12.95) which must also have been excellent, as the plate appeared to be cleared in record time (a high compliment from a guest who used to be a chef).
Portions go large here so desserts aren’t really a necessity, but it has to be said that both the chocolate and tahini brownie (£4.95 for a sumptuous, peanut buttery fix) and a lighter option of floral-infused fat free frozen yoghurt (£4.25) deserve to be investigated, and there’s freshly baked baklawa piled high on a counter too. After all that, the mint tea – poured with a theatrical flourish from a great height – is a refreshing palate cleanser at home time…. especially if you started your voyage of discovery off with a cocktail or two from a very lively selection, as we did.
So: I’ve finished this review back where we started. But perhaps Comptoir Libanais is the kind of place that brings such behaviour to the fore: take a seat, take your time and prepare to indulge your senses, secure in the knowledge – as we were – that we’ll be taking another trip back to the future of Lebanese food in Bath in no time at all.