Eating out / Late-night special

Maroush II; 38 Beauchamp Place, London SW3 1NU. Tel: 0171 581 5434. Open every day from noon to 4am. Average price per person, pounds 20. Major credit cards accep ted
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The Independent Culture
Heading back to London on a Sunday night, on the last train from Crewkerne in Dorset to Waterloo (due in at 10.45pm), Marie and I decided we were hungry. And we weren't just let's-eat-all-the-peanuts-and-crisps- on-the-refreshment-trolley hungry. This was a fully fledged where-on-earth- can-we-go-in-London-for-a-decent-meal-after-11-o'clock- on-a-Sunday-night kind of ravenousness (with a distinctive neither-of- us-feels-much-like-a-curry edge to the appetite).

This is a knotty dilemma to have on a train, when you can't easily call up restaurants to check when they take last orders. And we didn't want to go home first, and research a solution from there: we knew we'd end up snacking on toast, before succumbing to the lure of the duvet.

Marie cracked it when she said she felt like eating Lebanese. I thought this was an excellent idea. It also jogged my memory - I was pretty sure that someone had once said that Maroush II was open until four in the morning every night of the week. I'd never eaten there, but had been a couple of times to the sister restaurant, Maroush I, a highly dependable and rather glamorous establishment on the Edgware Road (it turns out we could have eaten here too: it stays open until 2am).

We arrived at Maroush II with our weekend luggage, embarrassing both in quantity and shape. But the charming maitre d' made no bones about stashing it on top of an unused table, and propping my fishing rod in the corner.

Initially we thought that the downstairs bar, which seemed to be doing a good line in various kebabs, felafel and other filled-pitta snacks, might do us nicely; but there were so many tempting sounding things on the restaurant menu that we decided it deserved to be properly addressed upstairs, in the comfort of the restaurant proper.

We were seated in a conservatory-like extension where air-conditioning battled with the natural greenhouse effect, and just about kept the heat at bay. If only this part of the dining-room had a retractable roof, we thought, it would make a fantastic alfresco setting. Maybe, if they have a good year, Maroush management will consider it.

The first thing to arrive, as in so many (most? all?) Lebanese restaurants, was a dish of cracked green and black olives, with that unmistakable Middle- Eastern tang of citrus peel and bay, and another piled with fresh raw vegetables: we munched our way through raw carrots, radishes, and a wonderfully crisp whole half of a cos lettuce. But we were stymied, as usual, by the enormous whole beefsteak tomato - an apparently ubiquitous presence on the Lebanese pre-meal raw vegetable platter, but not one I have ever seen anybody tackle.

We quickly decided that the best fun to be had with the long and tempting menu was to order a bunch of starters. When there's 41 to choose from, the only way to do this, we decided, was to start from the top and order everything we both liked the sound of, and stop when we thought we had enough. This got us as far as number 28 - mildly spiced little lamb sausages called makanak - although when I spotted sambousek languishing down below at number 37, we had to have that too. Just as well, because these little parcels of superb pastry (somewhere between crispy and crumbly, which is a pretty fine place for pastry to be) were filled with a delectable mixture of minced lamb and cracked pine kernels, and we both loved them.

Marie had exercised her right of veto on the fresh raw lamb's liver, but she was willing to give lisanat (cold salad of lambs' tongues) a go. We both liked this dish too - mainly because the tongues were so tender. (Mrs Beeton once wrote that a boiling tongue is ready when it is tender enough to be pierced with a straw. Maroush's lisanat could have been pierced with a rolled-up bus ticket.)

Just about everything went down well: the tabouleh had a pleasing note of mint as well as parsley; the baba ghanouj (grilled aubergines beaten to a puree with sesame oil) tasted wonderfully smokey, thanks to a proper char-grilling, and the labneh (Lebanese condensed yoghurt) was as unctuous and creamy as ever. Only the fat-ayer (spinach filled pastries) were not quite to our taste: the pastry was again perfect, but the spinach filling was just too lemony.

We finished the meal with mint tea, which inevitably came with a plate of Lebanese pastries: dense little packages which explode in the mouth, releasing an exhilarating shrapnel of sugar, honey, pastry and nuts. Yes, we liked them too.

As we paid the bill, half-a-dozen Lebanese women in their twenties walked into the restaurant. From the immaculate finish of their make-up and hair, and the crispness of their clothes, it was quite clear that this dinner, even at one in the morning, was not the end of a night out, but the beginning of one. We wondered what they were planning, and how they managed it. Were they completely nocturnal creatures? Female vampires perhaps?

Marie deduced not, pointing out that at least some daylight hours must be made use of - for shopping, at which they obviously excelled. I wasn't so sure: these women looked to me as if they could, just by punching in a few numbers on their chic little mobile phones, command an instant opening in the small hours of just about any Knightsbridge fashion emporium.

We couldn't help admiring this glitzy pride of confident Lebanese lionesses, all set for a night (a Sunday night at that) on the town. As we shuffled out on to the street with our scruffy luggage, it occurred to me that I may never sit down to dinner at one in the morning with a view to a night on the town. But if ever I do, at least I know the place to do it, and the right fuel for the job.