Lebanese please: Can Britain's top-rated takeaway The Cedar live up to authentic home-cooked Middle Eastern cuisine?
The nationality of Britain's favourite takeaway might come as a shock to some, but thanks to her father's great cooking, Sophie Robehmed is no stranger to Lebanese cuisine
"Trust me, Pa, we're going the right way," I tell my dad, after he darts over to a passer-by to ask for directions, as we walk down a residential road in Maida Vale, west London. It seems an unlikely location for Britain's favourite takeaway. The Cedar, a Lebanese restaurant, was recently named Britain's top takeaway by the online delivery website hungryhouse.co.uk, after it received more positive reviews than any of the other 9,000-plus eateries listed on the site.
We're on our way to sample some of owner Sami Khoueiry's dishes to discover if his authentic Lebanese home cooking is the real deal, or at least as tasty as my dad's concoctions. Growing up with a Lebanese father and a British mother has certainly given me the best of two, predominantly polar-opposite, culinary worlds. But it's the Lebanese cuisine that has left its mark.
My baba has always been a keen and sometimes experimental cook. I remember navigating a dripping muslin cloth, hanging from the ceiling in the garage, as Dad made labneh, a Lebanese take on cream cheese. A bowl would be strategically placed below to catch the whey and, when it eventually stopped dripping, it was ready to eat. It's a ritual that makes me look at a tub of shop-bought cream cheese in a different light. Then there was the unmistakable aroma of garlic that would waft through the house, which meant only one thing: loubieh bi zeit, runner beans in a tomato-and-onion sauce, with most, if not all, ingredients picked fresh from the garden.
Talking of onions, these days, Dad still fries them with spinach, the green stuff a replacement for hundaba, a plant that grows naturally in Lebanon, that his mother would pick, about two kilos at a time, from the mountainside and orchards. The complementary combination is perfect for mopping up in paper-thin khobz marquq bread. Sometimes, Dad knocks up tabbouleh or hashwet al-ruz (spiced rice with minced lamb and pine nuts), but more often than not, he asks his "three ladies" (that's my mum, my older sister, Chantal, and me) whether we would like arayes, meaty flatbreads with onion and parsley, a dish my mum adored when she was pregnant with Chantal and living in Abu Dhabi, where my parents met, and that we garnish with toasted pine nuts and dollops of home-made hummus.
Having found The Cedar, we go inside. The decor is typically Middle Eastern: Baltic brown granite tables, wooden chairs and a cream slate floor. Monochrome pictures of Beirut in its heyday in the Fifties and Sixties, when the Lebanese capital was very much the "Paris of the Middle East", are scattered around the room. I spot a nazar, an eye-shaped charm to ward off the "evil eye", entwined with a small Virgin Mary wall-hanging.
We're still examining the lengthy menu, one deserving of my dad's "mullet" mouth, an intrinsic Lebanese expression where the lips slide downwards, like a fish, to indicate just how impressed he is at the variety and volume of dishes on offer, when Sami tells me he's already ordered for us. Thankfully, I can request halloumi on manaeesh flatbread, the best kind of "cheese on toast".
The dishes soon arrive, filling up the table with their vibrant colours: tabbouleh, stuffed vine leaves, falafel, fattoush (a crispy toasted flatbread and vegetable salad), hummus, moutabal (grilled aubergine purée with sesame oil and lemon juice), batata harra (spicy fried potatoes), za'atar manaeesh, mujadara (warm mashed lentils with rice and topped off with caramelised onions), warm Lebanese bread fresh out of the oven, and a medley of pickles and olives. "I make everything fresh. Even the pickles are home-made," Sami says. "I pickle them here," he grins.
I wolf down the halloumi manaeesh, in between dunking slices of it into the hummus. It's a dreamy combination, enhanced by the home-made hummus, something that a £1 pot from the supermarket could never do. And hummus, like many Lebanese dishes, is so easy to make – essentially just chickpea purée with sesame oil and lemon. "You can find ingredients everywhere now," says Sami, who sources meat from London's Smithfield Market and fish from Billingsgate Market. "But you might need a Lebanese supplier for spices."
Dad is equally taken with the home-made tabbouleh and mujadara, concluding that the food is "top class" and that he'll recommend the restaurant to his friends. High praise, indeed. So, what's Sami's secret? "If I felt like I couldn't eat it, I wouldn't serve it," he says.
Sami's heartfelt approach to his cooking is clearly working. It's late afternoon and there's a steady stream of diners and delivery drivers coming and going. Such a scene is being played out up and down the country at Lebanese restaurants from Soukitchen in Bristol, which will be holding a special five-course Lebanese feast in association with Bristol's Food Connections festival next week, to Bakchich in Liverpool, whose Lebanese street food has gone down a storm since it opened last year, propelling it to its current position as the 20th-best-ranked restaurant out of 1,018 eateries in the city on TripAdvisor.
Tony Kitous, the founder of the Comptoir Libanais restaurant chain, is riding the wave of what is a bit of a boom in Lebanese cuisine. Comptoir Libanais is all about laid-back, affordable, easy, healthy eating with "no fuss". This year, he is expanding outside of the capital for the first time, before doing the same in the United States, Europe and the Middle East in the future. There is also a cookbook, Comptoir Libanais (£20) available, so that fans of the chain's food can make it themselves (see recipes, right).
"It's very simple why Lebanese food is so appealing right now," Tony says. "It's one of the few cuisines in the world that give you a huge range of healthy dishes with bright, punchy flavours. In a meze alone, you can have more than 300 different dishes.
"It's the freshest fast food out there, it's heaven for vegetarians, extremely good value for money and, more importantly, it's the kind of cuisine that's made for sharing, something that is integral to our Lebanese culture."
And that's why, when the time comes to leave Sami, we take some food with us so that my sister, whom we are meeting nearby, can share in this fabulous feast, too. We head towards the Tube station, this time both certain of the route – and that the next time we visit The Cedar, we'll take Mum and Chantal as well.
BULGAR SALAD WITH FRESH PEAS AND MINT
A vividly green salad with mint and parsley, lightly cooked fresh peas, and pomegranate seeds for that bit of sweetness and crunch, mixed with a simple dressing of good olive oil and cider vinegar to bring out a much more interesting flavour. You can replace the bulgar with cooked quinoa if you want a gluten-free dish, and if I can't find really good pomegranates at the market I just use a combination of toasted sunflower seeds and chopped dried apricots or raisins. Not quite the same but it adds the crunch and sweetness I like.
Bulgar salad with fresh peas and mint (Dan Lepard)
150g fresh or frozen peas
300g dry bulgar wheat
Small bunch of fresh mint, leaves only, roughly chopped
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, roughly chopped
One and a half tablespoons olive oil
25ml cider vinegar
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Simmer the peas for a few minutes in boiling water, adding half a teaspoon of salt to bring out the flavour, then drain. Place the bulgar wheat in a bowl, cover with tepid water and leave for 30-60 minutes until soft, then drain well.
Chill the peas in a little iced water to hold their colour. Fluff the bulgar with a fork and mix in salt and pepper to taste. At this stage the bulgar will keep in the fridge for at least a day, same for the peas, so you can make these in advance.
To serve, mix the herbs, drained peas, olive oil and vinegar through the bulgar. Spoon into a bowl, check the seasoning, then sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds.
MINI LAMB FLATBREADS
Manaeesh is best described as the Lebanese version of a small pizza. They are essentially flatbreads topped with za'atar (a mixture of Middle Eastern herbs and spices), melted cheese or meat. This slightly heavier manaeesh would be delicious served as part of a lunch spread with a light salad and a yoghurt-based sauce or dip.
Mini lamb flatbreads (Dan Lepard)
1 small onion
100g minced lamb
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
Half teaspoon cinnamon
Generous pinch of dried chilli flakes
Half teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon Lebanese 7-spice mix
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
6 flatbreads, home-made or bought from Middle Eastern shops
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/gas 7. Put 2 baking trays in the oven to preheat.
Put the onion, lamb, half the chopped tomatoes, the chilli flakes, spices and molasses and some salt and pepper into a food processor and blitz until finely chopped.
Spoon the lamb mixture evenly over the 6 breads and use the back of a spoon to smooth it out over the dough. Slide the rounds on to the prepared baking trays and bake in the oven for about 12 minutes, until the dough is golden and the topping is completely cooked.
Slide on to a board, scatter the remaining tomato over the bread and garnish with the parsley. Serve warm.
POMEGRANATE MOLASSES-MARINATED SALMON
The secret to achieving a balance of flavours in this dish is in the amount of lemon juice you add. Salmon is quite a rich, oily fish and here it's partnered with syrupy pomegranate molasses, and the two together risk being overwhelming and cloying. The acidic lemon juice ensures you cut through this richness, so after adding it taste the dish to check the balance is right before serving. The fresh pomegranate seeds provide colour, of course, but the pop of the juice when you bite into them adds a delicious freshness to the dish.
Pomegranate molasses-marinated salmon (Dan Lepard)
4 salmon fillets, about 150g each
Juice of 1 lemon plus 1 lemon, halved
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
Seeds from half a fresh pomegranate
Small handful of mint leaves, chopped
Lay the salmon fillets on a plate or in a dish and drizzle the lemon juice over them. Sprinkle with the thyme, and season well with salt and pepper. Chill for 30 minutes to marinate.
Take the salmon out of the fridge. Heat a large, heavy-based frying pan until hot and add the oil. Place the salmon in the pan, skin-side down. Add the lemon halves at the same time, putting them in cut-side down.
Reduce the heat slightly to medium and cook for 5-8 minutes, until the salmon skin is crispy and the fillets look as though they're almost cooked through. Turn them over and cook on the other side. Squeeze the juice out of the lemon, add the pomegranate molasses and sumac. Taste to check that the balance of sweet and sour is right.
Serve the salmon with a sprinkling of the pomegranate seeds and a few chopped fresh mint leaves.
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