Where do you look? Even looking feels like leering, with all those undulating stomachs and shimmering hips in the way. So I sit there with a polite smile on my face, pretending to contemplate the cultural and social significance of belly dancing while a woman shakes her beads in my face. All I want is for the music to finish and the dancing girls to cease, so I can go back to my food. After all, I am much more interested in my belly than theirs.
Some restaurants have three stars. Some have five rosettes. But Tony Kitous's new Moroccan/Lebanese restaurant in Bishopsgate has a four belly-dancer rating. Kitous, who also owns Kensington's Pasha, isn't one to do things by halves. To fit out Kenza, he travelled to Morocco and Lebanon, tracking down and commissioning carvings, hand-painted tiles and richly embroidered fabrics. So as you descend a rose-petal-strewn spiral staircase, you are plunged into an Aladdin's cave of sumptuous over-the-topness. A large lounge/bar segues into a series of dining areas and private rooms in which candles flicker, beaded brass chandeliers glow and intricate filigree screens cast shadows over diners reclining on lavishly cushioned banquettes like pampered sultans. Incense hangs in the air, while a DJ from Beirut's Buddha Bar spins Arabic chill music. In this context, four belly dancers seems modest.
Head chef Jad Youssef, formerly of Fakhreldine, has put together a mixed bag of mostly Lebanese/some Moroccan dishes grouped into a number of "feasts" from £34 to £53 per person. At night, you can order from a fixed-price, multiple-choice menu, when two mezze and a main course are £28 per person. Whichever way you go, it's more feast than famine, as the meal opens with a table-covering Lebanese spread of puffy, freshly baked flatbreads, pickles and raw vegetables, presented in a manageable miniature form, including cherry tomatoes, baby gems and small Lebanese cucumbers. It is a fresh, generous and traditional start. Then the mezze dishes arrive. First comes zalouk, an aubergine and tomato dip that is lush and aromatic; and sawda dajaj, garlicky chicken livers with the citrussy twang of pomegranate molasses.
On to arayes, miniature pizzas of minced lamb and pine nuts; and kibbe samak, deep-fried balls filled with cracked wheat and minced fish – both are dry and bland.
Kitous has brought in some familiar faces. Service is friendly and unfussy under Marcus Etty, formerly of Sketch and National Dining Rooms, while sommelier Peter Lorimer was last seen at China Tang. His list is impressive, a globally roaming selection going all the way up to the '98 Mouton-Rothschild at £500, but more importantly, a valid and up-to-date Lebanese and North African selection. An '04 Beni M'tir from Domaine Riad Jamil (£29), a luscious, full-bodied Moroccan red, is so at home here it practically undulates in the glass.
Main courses are like mini banquets. Roast sea bass (lokoz) is simply presented as two big, fleshy fillers draped over citrussy rice with a pot of tahini spiked up with fried onions and pine nuts. It's a subtle dish full of soothing, easy flavours.
Mashawy is a meaty collection of skewered and grilled quail, chicken, lamb and lamb kafta on a mound of light, fluffy rice mixed with vermicelli enclosed in a flap of mountain bread. The meat is fairly one-dimensional until taken with the red pepper, coriander and onion salad, and slathered with garlic mousse and harissa.
Dinner finishes with a theatrical presentation of mint tea and a multi-tiered stand holding fresh, salty pistachio nuts, gooey Turkish delight, honey-sticky pastries and sweetmeats (£4.50).
It's great to have traditional Lebanese food in such an entertaining setting, but for the price, the cooking could have been taken to the next level, with more select ingredients and sensitive timing. Then it would be our bellies dancing, too.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Kenza, 10 Devonshire Square, London EC2. Tel: 020 7929 5533
Lunch and dinner daily (Mon-Sat).Around £120 for two includingwine and service.
Second helpings: More belly dancers
21 Edgware Road, London W2, tel: 020 7723 0773
The first Maroush opened in 1981. It is still going strong, serving up the usual mezze and grills, with musicians and belly dancers after 10pm.
64 Torwood Street, Torquay, Devon, tel: 01803 211 755
Sit under tented ceilings, order from a mix of North African and Mediterranean dishes, and let the belly dancers do their thing (on Friday and Saturday nights).
9 5 Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol, tel: 01179 739 734
The best time to visit Bristol's favourite Lebanese restaurant is on the final Thursday of the month when it stages its "Arabian night", featuring a belly dancer.Reuse content