Hoovering: Nom-toir Libanais

Jess at Comptoir LibanaisIt was a sweaty old week last week, even if I didn’t have a squash-sized future child to lug about in my guts. I’m not complaining; I made the child on purpose and I’d always rather the sun was out. But I can do about 20 minutes, tops, before I’m chaffed and there’s a film of salty glistening shame covering every inch of me. Not from exertion, just from being awake.

I’d spent the morning plodding from meeting to thing to meeting to thing across London, adding grit to my sheen. Then I sat in Green Park to do some work and fell asleep on my Kindle, only to wake up on a frazzled plastic sweat-pond. Even the pigeons looked embarrassed.

I still had three hours before my next meeting or thing and I needed saving. I needed somewhere cool in temperature but not in ethos. I’d been judged enough for one day. Ideally, it would serve refreshing things that pregnant people are allowed. In some sort of crazy utopia it would even have Wi-Fi and plug-holes so I could finish and send a piece of work. I trundled through the commercialised, homogenised yet ever-grubby streets of Soho. Suddenly there, like an ice cube in a G&T, was Comptoir Libanais.

sojok man’oushaIt was only about 4.30pm so it was almost empty, which added to its sense of space. Delightful space. It was light and colourful. The staff were relaxed and kind and I was shown a table with Wi-Fi and a plug. There was even lemon and spice in the beautifully air-conditioned air. It was as if I’d walked inside an Ottolenghi cookbook.

I got a drink down me as soon as was possible. I ordered from the glorious sounding list of homemade lemonades. I went for ‘Roomana’. A blend of pomegranate and orange blossom. It was one of the best things that’s ever been in my mouth. Fresh, fruity and fragrant. I don’t know what it had to do with lemons, really but the pomegranate was tart and crisp. The orange was sweet and sour.

The blossom was the element of magic. It tasted exactly as you’d imagine an actual flower to, if you’d eaten it in a fairytale. Like wood and spice and honey. All of this going on in a freezing cold, clean flavoured liquid. Incredible. I just wished they’d called it ‘pomorblade’.

I started off nibbling on some ‘Dead Sea pickles’. A selection of wet sodium-chloridey wonders. Strips of gherkins, just being lovely gherkins. There was a pile of those brine-soaked chillies you get in kebabs. They invariably burst on your clothes a bit, in case that’s something you care about. Then some insanely savoury strips of some sort of purple root vegetable which felt like eating solid ‘sea’. I’ve always had a salt-tooth, let alone after I’ve spent the day shedding litres of vital minerals. The heat and the saline combined and slapped my mouth awake, joyfully. Oh and the flavours went together with my God-sent lemonade like Eric to its Ernie.

rosemary tea and teapotI had baba ghanuj. I’m a monster for roasted aubergines. Mulched in with tahini and oil, crunchy with toasted sesame seeds and topped with whole pomegranate seeds. There were still-hot-flatbreads to lap it up with. Never too rich, it was the loveliest balance of dainty, creamy and lightly spiced.

For mains I had sojok man’ousha. An oven-baked flatbread with spicy sausage, halloumi and tomato, served with a salad. Oh, it smelled so exotic! Small and simple-looking, it was anything but. I couldn’t hoof it all. That’s right. Me. I wrote that. I COULDN’T HOOF IT ALL.

There was all-spice and cinnamon in there, making it smoky and sweet all at once. It had the illusion of spice but again, what was incredible was the delicacy of the flavouring. It tasted as if the chefs had weighed their ingredients out with microscopes.

The salad set it all off just right. Soaking in the oil of the dip and the flatbread. Mainly it was composed of fresh herbs, especially parsley and mint and then drenched in a sexy, tart lemon dressing.

I eased down from my Cloud 9 with some fresh rosemary tea. Sweet and honeyed, it was like a princess’s pudding. It all seemed otherworldly. I spent over £25 but I’d sat feasting and working there all afternoon in a very heady state. It was more than worth it.

Comptoir Libanais menuIt was some of the most careful, thoughtful and elegant food I’ve ever hoofed. Let alone in a chain restaurant. Refreshing and buzzing but homely and utterly satisfying.

Comptoir Libanais (Lebanese Canteen), 59 Broadwick St, London, W1F 9QH (but there are 12 locations)
Tel: 0207 434 4335
Open: Mon – Sat 8am – 11pm, Sun 9:30am – 10.30pm
Website: www.comptoirlibanais.com
Accessible: The restaurant is all on one level with plenty of rooms and easy to access tables. The toilets, however, though they have step-free access, are not adapted and are really small and awkward.