Combining a restaurant, shop and delicatessen into one veritable cornucopia of Middle Eastern delights, Comptoir Libanais brings quality Lebanese food to London, throwing in some excellent prices for good measure.
Located a short walk from the maddening bustle of Oxford Street, Comptoir Libanais enjoys a much quieter setting, offering those laden with polyurethane and relieved of funds the perfect place to flee to when the shopping’s done. It’s a hugely inviting venue, too, offering the uninspiring streets of London a kaleidoscopic antidote of reds, blues, turquoises and oranges that make things feel enticing, vibrant and contemporary. And if this surprisingly well-matched colour scheme isn’t enough, then the dazzling gold from imported bags that hang on high, the vivid white of the walls and the huge mural of Lebanese film star Sirine Jamal al Dien should just about do the trick.
Once you’re enticed inside, appetising platters, extravagant breads and luxurious desserts sit teasingly behind a long glass cabinet, whilst the opposite wall plays host to a fine selection of imported exotic goods that are so alien to British eyes that they’re obliged, compelled even, to peruse them at length. And once they have done you can decide whether to dine at the window and watch the world go by or head to the spacious area at the back where you can enjoy a little more seclusion and privacy. Well, bar the imposing gaze of everybody’s favourite Middle Eastern film star as she keeps a watchful pair of far from beady eyes on your etiquette.
Comptoir Libanais’ canteen ethos and its daytime-only opening hours, mean this is somewhere well suited for catch ups over lunch, coffee over the morning paper or a quick takeaway to enjoy at the desk. The unfortunate lack of an alcohol license means it might miss out on ladies wot lunch but this doesn’t seem to affect its popularity, especially at the weekends when it attracts people of all nationalities, persuasions, ages and inclinations in their droves. There’s often a healthy dose of Middle Easterners, which is always a good sign, but thanks to the plethora of passers by and the venue’s attractive and welcoming decor, it’s not just a destination restaurant for those in the know.
Authentic, excellent value and offering an abundance of choice, the food at Comptoir Libanais is the real star. Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or something more substantial, you should be able to find something to suit, even if it’s just being greedy and popping in for one of the devilish sweets. Platters are an excellent place to start and at just £8.50 for a varied selection of Lebanese favourites it really is superb value, especially when it should keep two mouths fed until dinner time.
Consisting of a smooth, tahina rich houmous; delectable baba ghanuj finished with sweet pomegranate seeds; beautifully balanced falafel served with a yoghurt sauce; lamb samboussek with a tiny hint of mint; and a feta cheese samboussek with an equally tiny, yet just as complementary, hint of cinnamon; it offers a very impressive taste of Middle Eastern cuisine for a very affordable price. It will, however, make you want to try all those other mezze bits and pieces that you got lost in at the counter. When they cost just £3.30 for three, you can easily do so without getting anywhere near the bank, let alone breaking it.
The prawn falafel is a little different, but delicious for it, with chopped prawn, dill, chickpea and lemon combining well, but being superbly assisted by a sensational, sweet and fragrant red pepper and coconut sauce. If you do fancy something a little heartier, the tagines at £6.50 are worth a try, with the lamb option being particularly good. It’s authentic, too, with lamb that’s clearly been slow-cooked, evidence of which is in the remarkably tender meat that falls apart seductively on the fork. The accompanying couscous isn’t the best and could do with a touch more seasoning but the meat is king here, and it’s suitably regal.
The cakes and desserts are worth the trip alone, wherever you might be coming from. They are, however, the sort of things type-2 diabetes might employ if it ever decided to step up its war on the Western world. The baklava is particularly good, and at 95p per piece (you really don’t want more than one) it’s a great example of how baklava should be done - incredibly rich, incredibly sweet but with just enough savoury emphasis on pastry and chopped nuts to ensure it remains the edible side of saccharine. The macaroons (£1.95) are also very indulgent, perhaps too indulgent for some, but they are good, with the rosewater option being particularly fragrant, even if it doesn’t quite match up to the standards set by the Ladurees of the macaroon world.
Despite a lack of alcohol, Comptoir Libanais makes such an effort with softer options that unless you’re someone who shakes in the morning, it probably won’t be an issue. You’d expect nothing other than strong, full-flavoured coffee from somewhere like this and, happily, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Teas are equally impressive and suitably exotic, so if you fancy pouring from a pot of fresh peppermint, camomile, jasmine or even pomegranate tea you can, and it’ll only cost you £1.50 for the pleasure.
The fantastic range of juices is where this place really excels though, with fresh, beautifully balanced combinations of fruits and roots, the best of which is an exquisitely refreshing apple, mint and ginger lemonade at £1.80. The usual carbonated behemoths are also available such as coca cola, 7-Up and the like, but if you choose these over the tantalising alternatives then you probably need a gentle talking to.
The Last Word
With a superb selection of Middle Eastern favourites at excellent prices, Comptoir Libanais is the perfect introduction to, and reminder of, this type of cuisine. Just make sure you whet your whistle beforehand if you’re partial to a tipple.