Express & Star

Food review: Comptoir Libanais at Grand Central, Birmingham

If you were to rank world cuisines on suitability for a first date then Lebanese would rank pretty low.

The food of a nation – Lebanese mezze plates include baba ghanuj, falafel, pan-fried halloumi and fattoush salads

And that’s not because it’s a food that lacks sensuality; from bowls of silky olive oil-rich hummus, piles of pop-in-your-mouth mezze and perfumed salads to subtly spiced tagines mopped up with delicate shards of toasted pitta bread.

No, the problem with choosing a Lebanese restaurant for a first date is that you’ll most certainly end up with a load of herbs in your teeth.

Eat a tabbouleh salad and smile afterwards at your peril; the likelihood of a second date will flash before your eyes. This salad isn’t just heavy on parsley, it uses the grassy herb in Pavarotti-size proportions, only making way for a sprinkling of bulghur wheat, chopped tomatoes and spring onion.

Fattoush salads are pimped up with a garden’s worth of parsley and mint, and let’s not mention the cuisine’s use of seeds. Jet black nigella seeds poke fun a dinners with receeding gums as they are liberally sprinkled on top of natural labné (strained yoghurt) while the ruby jewels of pomegranates are strewn on salads, stews and sauces.

And so it was rather fortunate that when I visited the new Birmingham branch of Comptoir Libanais I was not on a first date. Or a second or third date. It’s safe to say that after more than 16 years together, me and the other half are well into harmonious, herb-munching, couldn’t care less about the consequences territory. We eat garlic with gusto, curries without caution and carry breath mints rarely. It’s a happy time.

Happier even since Comptoir Libanias opened in Grand Central. We’d been to a couple of the chain’s London outlets and enjoyed the freshly-prepared Beruit street food in joyously colourful surroundings; its image of an exotic red-lipped, flower girl now a recognisable brand icon.

Interiors are a riot of colour and eccentricity. Walls, decorated in bright Moorish tiles, are adorned with quirky artworks and gold etched plates. Baklava is piled high in the entrance and there are staff lingering outside, trying to entice customers into their cavernous lair. The only thing missing are the pyramids of ground spice. You can even pick up a souk-style woven bag and some pomegranate molasses on your way out – it’s authentic stuff with perhaps slightly lofty pricetags.

Styled on a Beiruti canteen, there’s an open kitchen and the informal restaurant buzzes with noise, chatter and clatter of crockery.

The menu features hot and cold mezze plus wraps, salads and tagines as well as other Lebanese dishes such as roasted sea bass topped with spiced coriander, tomato and tahina sauce. The exotic ingredients – sumac, Damascus olives, tahini, labné, rose syrup, all made me wistful for far off lands. Let’s run off to Lebanon, I thought. Who says Lebanese food isn’t romantic. As long as you don’t mind herbs in your teeth, that is.

Seeing that it was date night (albeit date number 19,032) we chose the mezze platter for two featuring piles of falafels, grilled halloumi, tabbouleh and freekah salads, pitta breads alongside pools of baba ghanuj and hummus. And a shed load of herbs.

We also ordered some lamb kibbeh, tasty lemon-shaped parcels of minced meat, cracked wheat, pine nuts and spices, and a piquant fattoush salad.

It all looked as good as it tasted, the lamb pockets being particularly delicious. The hummus was rich and creamy, the baba ghanuj as smoky as a tobacco-chewing cowboy. The sharp, fragrant pomegranate and sumac dressing turned the salad leaves into more than a sum of its parts. The only thing missing was the pickles – and I love a pickle – although I only noticed this once it was too late to complain. Shame ‘cos you can’t beat a good pickled chilli pepper – it’s a reason alone for ordering a Papa John’s.

With 20 minutes to spare before we needed to dash off to the cinema we decided to risk ordering dessert, struggling to choose between the plate of baklava, the date-syrup topped frozen yoghurt and the chocolate, orange and cardamon tart. So we ordered all three; another joy of being on date 19,032 – you can indulge in unapologetic gluttony and unbutton the top button of your jeans in accomodate it.

The six-piece plate of baklava arrived quickly and didn’t look particularly exciting, and tasted even less so. The rich, sweet dessert combining layers of crisp pastry, nuts and syrup is one of life’s joys however this was dry, dull stuff which didn’t warrant ditching the diet for. We had higher hopes for the other two puds.

However, it wasn’t to be. We waited and waited. And waited. We strained our necks towards the open kitchen to see if the arrival of dessert was imminent. With the time ticking towards the start of our film we decided to cancel our order and ask for the bill – much to our chagrin, the dark chocolate tart with sour yogurt sounded especially enticing. We consoled ourselves with the promose of popcorn and pick ‘n’ mix.

Check please!

Although we were allocated a waitress, service was chaotic with numerous other staff asking us if we were ready to order, whether we wanted more drinks, what we thought of our food, blah, blah, blah . . . It’s just a shame no one could deliver our dessert to us any sooner. Our waitress was apologetic and even asked if we wanted our choices boxed up to takeaway. We’d already agreed it wasn’t meant to be.

The bill came to just over £43 which included four Diet Cokes and service charge – all reasonably good value.

It was a very pleasant meal and, as a final trip to the ladies’ room revealed, I discovered more than a smattering of herbs caught between my teeth. Happy times.