This restaurant in Belgravia took over the premises formerly occupied by the very ordinary Salmontini, and had been running for about a year at the time of my visit. It is a branch of a Lebanese restaurant group that started in 1999 in Beirut and at the time of writing has eighteen places dotted around the Middle East, from Dubai to Qatar and Egypt. This is a big space, with a dining section near the window as you enter, a bar on the right and two further dining sections further inside. There was a lengthy a la carte choice, with a mezze set lunch at £16 and a larger lunch menu at £22 also.
The wine list has some rather careless typos – “Pulignu Montrachet” or “Don Perignon” anyone? – but does at least feature plenty of Lebanese wines. Chateau Musar is the most famous wine of the Lebanon but there were about a dozen whites and a further dozen reds listed here. Bizarrely, it mostly omitted vintages but then included a few, seemingly at random. To illustrate why this laziness matters, suppose you were contemplating ordering a bottle of Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap in California. The 2000 vintage retails currently at £55, the 2004 vintage at £85 but the 2003 vintage costs £181. So is the price on the wine list here of £182 a bargain (if 2003), tolerable (if 2004) or wildly expensive (if 2000)? Who would know?
Overall there were 57 wines ranging in price from £24 to £299, with a median price of £52 and, as best I could work out, an average markup level of about three times the retail price, though with some outliers well beyond this level. Example labels that actually featured vintages on the list included Chateau Ksara Rouge 2011 at £40 for a bottle that you can find in a shop for £7, Chateau Musar 2011 at £68 compared to its retail price of £32, and Chateau Kefraya Comte de M 2010 at £82 for a bottle that will set you back £47 in a shop. This was a very lazily labelled wine list indeed.
A starter of fattouch salad consisted of toasted pieces of khubz (Lebanese bread) along with cucumber, leaves, rocket, spring onion, sumac (a spice from the berries of a Mediterranean bush, having a tart flavour) and a dressing of pomegranate and molasses. This was harmless enough, though the leaves were nothing special and the sumac flavour was quite subdued (11/20). I tried a falafel salad, whose salad components of lettuce, cucumber and tomato were also rather dull. These had no salad dressing applied but came with a decent tahini dressing on the side, and the falafel itself was quite good, avoiding the dryness that can so often afflict this dish (12/20).
Siyadiyeh (”fisherman’s rice”) had poached sea bass with brown rice, pine nuts and caramelised onion. The fish was cooked a little longer than ideal and was from a small and probably farmed fish, and had little flavour. The rice had pleasant texture, but for me the dish lacked any real excitement (11/20).
Chich taouk comprised chunks of chicken that had been marinated in lemon juice and garlic before being grilled, and served inside a bread casing. On the side was a garlic sauce. Some variations of the recipe for this dish have spice in the marinade, but if this one did it was not obvious. The chicken itself was a touch overcooked, and pieces at the end were dried out, though the bulk of the meat was reasonable. On the side was a single cooked potato, tomato and a distinctly charred bit of aubergine, as well as a green chilli. The overall effect was quite dry, though the garlic sauce helped, and this did at least taste properly of garlic (11/20).
A selection of baklava was one of the menu choices, and the waitress was initially hazy as to whether this was made in the kitchen or bought in. It was pleasant enough, though for me a little more syrup would have been beneficial. It turned out that it was indeed bought in. Worryingly, that was the best thing that we ate. Coffee was Illy and was decent.
Service was lacklustre, and the two salad starters took well over twenty minutes to arrive, despite no obvious competition for the attentions of the kitchen. The manager seemed remarkably doleful as he stared out over the quiet dining room at this lunch – counting us there were four diners in total, though there were also some takeaway orders being picked up by delivery motorcyclists. The manager’s manner was more suited to that of a funeral director having a bad day than a maître d’, though to be fair our waitress was pleasant enough, albeit a touch forgetful. The bill, with mineral water to drink, came to £42 a head. If you ordered three courses and coffee and shared a bottle of wine then a more typical cost per head might be around £60. Overall this was a pretty dispiriting experience. The food was competent but no more than that, and the gloomy manager did not enhance the dining experience. I will not be hurrying back here.