Food: Spice girl

London's little Lebanon - sublime sweetmeats, sausages and cheesecake to kill for
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dr Talal Farah has the physique of a man who has enjoyed many mezze in his time. He leans back in his seat, hand on stomach after enjoying a few more, and tells me: "When I arrived tonight, I was eight and a half months pregnant, now I am nine and a half months."

Which doesn't stop him from reaching for another falafel, breaking it in two with his fingers, crushing it with a fork, pouring some tahini sauce over and scooping the whole thing up with a piece of cushioned, puffy bread, then reaching for his glass of arak.

Dr Farah is a Lebanese man who likes his food the Lebanese way. We have come to Al Fawar, a newly opened restaurant in Baker Street that has the London Lebanese chattering. Another such chattered-about haunt of the gastronomically minded is The Lebanese Restaurant in London's Edgeware Road which, when it opened in 1977, was one of the first of its kind.

here, the owner Tony Akiki's secret weapon is a gifted 55-year-old Lebanese female cook with a sublime lightness of touch when it comes to preparing time-consuming stuffed pastries and vine leaves.

Beyond this, good Lebanese cooking is characterised by freshness and care taken in sourcing the ingredients. A discerning Lebanese cook is every bit as fussy about sesame oil as an Italian is about oil from the olive.

Lebanese cooking is not a pastiche of the original in the way of Chinese food. But there are still certain dishes have been absorbed into our culture, such as hummus, tabbouleh, and moutabal (a puree of aubergines blended with tahini), which bear little resemblance to the traditional versions: an adulteration of texture, of the proportions of the ingredients used, and the spices. The likes of chilli and garlic are added to appease the Western and the Arab palate.

Take coarse and garlicky hummus, the type that co-habits with taramasalata. A good hummus is as smooth as whipped cream. The chickpeas at The Lebanese Restaurant are boiled with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda for 3-4 hours, then washed five or six times until the skins slough off. They are then combined with tahini and lemon juice. That is all, no other spices or olive oil is added.

The Lebanese have a ritual when eating mezze that is the preserve of those who have eaten these little dishes all their life. Tomato and cucumber, cut up and seasoned with salt, pepper and sumac (tart like lemon) come in essential attendance to the arak, as well as cracked green olives, almonds and pumpkin seeds, all in preparation for the mezze that is gradually spread before you.

The Lebanese Restaurant is part of a stretch of London's Edgware Road that has been colonised by ex-pat Arabs: a short trip up from Marble Arch,it is a promenade of syrupy pastries and frothy coffees. The architecture is curiously bland, virtually a motorway lined with faceless apartments.

The closest to local colour are the fruit and vegetable stalls outside the shops that provide some hints as to their provenance: strings of dates, bitter gourds and persimmons the texture of balloons filled with juice - ripe for eating in a way I have never encountered in a supermarket.

One shop in particular, Green Valley, is so specific in its range of Lebanese ingredients that it attracts custom from as far and wide as Paris and Edinburgh. The owner, Mrs Beany, a glamorous fortysomething, has just taken up smoking a hubble bubble. "No substances," she tells me sucking in a mouthful of smoke through bubbling water, "do you know what I mean?"

This is the friendliest shop on the block. I cannot say the more basic stores further down encourage me to browse, there is something forbidding about them. Perhaps it's the blatancy of the Halal meat counters. Green Valley is there for the homesick. You can touch down at Heathrow craving a taste of the cheesecake of home, and here you will find it. Where treacle tart meets Welsh rabbit, alluring in the fashion that only totally unorthodox food combinations can be: a pastey cake on top of melted Lebanese cheese the consistency of Gruyere, drowned in rosewater syrup.

Elsewhere in the shop, there are sausages spiced with coriander, cumin, cinnamon and garlic. Pistachio and almonds come in different salinities: half salted and salted, and there are any number of pickles and different olives, some with mint and garlic, others with lemon - mainly green and fairly bitter, because that's how the Lebanese like them.

Tabbouleh, serves 4

Tabbouleh is the test of strength of any Lebanese restaurant, and it has nothing to do with the stodgy, wheat-laden salad that has come to be sold in tubs.

It is a salad of freshly chopped herbs and has no shelf-life to speak of, a good restaurant will make it twice a day. The parsley should be young, and the wheat, a silent partner, should be fine brown burghol, added as a smattering after the salad has been mixed.

1 12 tbsp fine burghol

1 x 4oz/ 110g bunch of flat-leaf parsley, tough stalks removed

2 standard tomatoes, sliced and then chopped

1 large spring onion, finely sliced and then chopped

1 handful of mint leaves, chopped

1 level tsp sea salt

12 tsp black pepper

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp lemon juice

Rinse the wheat in a fine-mesh sieve and leave it on the side to absorb the remaining moisture. Chop the parsley, holding the bunch and slicing from leaf to stalk. Combine the parsley, tomato, mint and onion in a bowl, add the seasoning, the oil and lemon juice and combine. Mix in the burghol. If you do end up with leftovers, then seal the surface with a lettuce leaf, and cover with cling film.

Al Fawar, 50 Baker St, London W1 (0171-224 4777). Green Valley, 36 Upper Berkeley St, London W1 (0171-402 7385).The Lebanese Restaurant, 60 Edgware Rd, London W2 (0171-723 9130)

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