Orient excess

The facelessness of Belgravia provides the perfect backdrop to a restaurant whose clientele is both exotic and anonymous
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Graham Greene's Stamboul train left from Victoria Station. A five-minute walk away, it's not hard to imagine Greene's one-eyed currant merchant slipping invisible into Noura Brasserie to take his place beside the Saddam Hussein and Jimmy Goldsmith lookalikes, and worldly Frenchmen - wearing the kind of suits and grins that only worldly Frenchmen can - who really ought to be arms dealers. Which is not - lawyers please note - to cast any aspersions on Noura's clientele. It's just they don't look like they'll be catching the 11.27 to Esher once they've had their gold cards swiped.

Graham Greene's Stamboul train left from Victoria Station. A five-minute walk away, it's not hard to imagine Greene's one-eyed currant merchant slipping invisible into Noura Brasserie to take his place beside the Saddam Hussein and Jimmy Goldsmith lookalikes, and worldly Frenchmen - wearing the kind of suits and grins that only worldly Frenchmen can - who really ought to be arms dealers. Which is not - lawyers please note - to cast any aspersions on Noura's clientele. It's just they don't look like they'll be catching the 11.27 to Esher once they've had their gold cards swiped.

The original Noura is in Paris: a bustling Lebanese brasserie on the boulevard Montparnasse, successful enough to have spawned a spin-off across the city in the ritzy Seiziÿme. Now, normally I'd say that Belgravia was a crappy place to open anything, unless you're one of the area's many hotel doormen. But, in this case, the facelessness of SW1, that sense that everyone's just passing through, almost works in Noura's favour. The sense of place is in its displacement - which is what I've always imagined Beirut must be like.

Having narrowly avoided being run over on any of the four-lane highways outside (and having made the mistake of asking directions from one of the aforementioned doormen), I found my guest sitting in the ample, and at this stage of the evening empty, bar. Robert, who is worldly (though not French), works for a dotcom start-up like the one in the BBC series Attachments, but with less lesbian sex. "This is like bloody Moscow. They like a bit of hotel-lobby chic," he said, pointing to the woman receptionist, sitting in a little round booth, staring glumly at a monitor. Beside her, five waiters were milling, doing a passable imitation of bodyguards, with little chicken-walk shrugs of the shoulder. "The only difference is that in Moscow they really would be body guards." In the corner of the bar, Madeleine Albright was chuntering away silently on CNN.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that as we took our seats to eat - staring forlornly through the fire exit at a motorcycle courier in the adjoining office block - a Slavic gloom descended, which even Robert's unprintable description of Michael Flatley's website, called something like www.feetoffire.com, could do little to alleviate. A bottle of Lebanese red (Chateau Kafraya '96) and the arrival of the mezze worked better: falafel that looked like amaretti biscuits, delicately spiced chicken livers that melt in the mouth the way only chicken livers can, and an impressive platter of complimentary vegetables, topped off by a lettuce leaf the size and shape of one of the Queen Mother's hats. The only thing we couldn't get along with was the sojuk (spicy sausage) and eggs - less a mezze than a pizza topping in search of a base.

We should probably have stuck to the mezze. My lamb cutlets were slightly overdone and dish of the day, castaleta ghanam (stuffed lamb), tasted overwhelmingly of cinnamon. But by this time we didn't care too much. There was people-watching to do: at a neighbouring table, a moth-balled Madame Arcati and - yes, I know there's only a limited number of lookalikes you can encounter in one evening, but this is the truth - a bull of a man, the spitting image of Eugene Terreblanche. If Dr Beltado, the loucher-than-life academic who appears in the Lebanon section of Olivia Manning's Levant trilogy, had walked through the door, no one would have blinked.

The thing is that - like the waiters and the background music, which is the restaurant's one self-consciously ethnic touch - Noura's charms creep up on the unsuspecting diner. By the time dessert (rice-pudding baby food, and a second, equally good bottle of red) arrived, our spirits were picking up, and it was almost possible to imagine the waiters whipping off their undertakers' suits, Flatley- or Buck's Fizz-style, and showing off their feet of fire.

Even the receptionist looked a little cheerier. As we left, she was still sitting in her circular booth. Her computer screen read "First Class". Not quite. But, then, the Stamboul train has other attractions I thought, as I set off to catch the 11.27 to Esher.

Noura Brasserie 16 Hobart Place, London SW1, tel: 020 7235 9444. Open daily for lunch and dinner

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