There's more to Lebanese food than sheep's eyes or pots of hummus, says Ben Rogers
Ask most people about the food of the Middle East and, unless they mention sheep's eyes and goat's balls, you'll draw a blank. Yet we are, of course, only too familiar with Levantine cooking, or at least a travesty of it, mainly in the form of the supermarket "dip". The dip now plays an integral part in our national diet, a murky amalgam of cream and cod's roe, cucumber, aubergine or chick pea. Add a desiccated stick of celery and a coating of other people's saliva and you have a favourite barbecue or party snack.

The modern British barbecue tends to feature another Middle Eastern favourite: grilled meat. I can't talk about the rest of the country but last summer London's streets took on a permanent odour of charcoal, paraffin and burnt flesh, as the city went barbecue-mad. I was accosted by it almost nightly as one or other of our neighbours indulged in yet another salmonella fest. From what I could tell, the choice was always the same: carcinogenic kebab or chicken Chernobyl. In this way, we daily violate the subtle and venerable tradition which is the cuisine of the Middle East.

I have never, alas, been to Lebanon but am lucky in having a Lebanese friend in Nadine, whose mother, Leila, once cooked me a Lebanese "breakfast" in her home in Wimbledon, otherwise a gastronomic Gobi desert. We sat enchanted through course after course of hummus balila (chick pea with oil and lemon), foul moudamas (stewed broad beans), mankouche (a pizza-like dough, flavoured with thyme and sesame), labneh (a soured yoghurt cheese), and other delicacies. The finishing touch came with eggs fried with a rich lamb confit. Ever since, "The Great British Breakfast" has seemed a crude and heavy- handed affair.

It was Nadine who also introduced me to what he described, I think reasonably enough, as the best Lebanese restaurant in London. Marcelle is a Greek Orthodox Lebanese from the mountains above Jbeil, and her restaurant, Chez Marcelle on Blythe Road, W14, behind Olympia, is about as authentic as you can get. It looks like a thousand Turkish and Cypriot take-aways - a bare room with lino floors, pine tables and benches, and a simple grill behind a counter. The doner kebab is all that's missing. On second glance, however, you notice things are slightly different: the meat and vegetables in the display-cabinet glisten, and incongruously smart cars draw up outside.

On my first visit to Chez Marcelle, the gas grill was not working but we ate a beautifully fresh, exotic meal, cooked over a little charcoal fire, while Nadine, Marcelle, a builder and an accountant chatted across the tables. At the end of the evening, everyone seemed to exchange cards - business, Arab style. I went back a couple of weeks later with some American friends and had a meal just as good. In the end, however, I did not feel that I could review Chez Marcelle and not just because Nadine had sworn me to secrecy, but because the service was so comically bad. The restaurant often appeared to close without reason; in-house diners always seemed to come second to take-aways; the waiter, when there was one, moved so slowly you could see him rust.

Now, however, Marcelle has given her restaurant over to two younger men, Richard Feghaly and Jihad Dagher, who have tightened up the service while keeping the menu exactly as it was. We began our last meal there with glass of arak and a shiny bowl of green and pink pickles (the pink being supplied by turnip) before moving to starters of stewed broad beans, puree of grilled aubergines and sesame oil, and my favourite of all, fattouch - a tangy salad of parsley, tomato, and slivers of fried Lebanese bread. A bowl of shimmering, oily hummus had as much relation to the stuff you buy at Marks & Spencer as I have to Lawrence of Arabia. The grilled meat main courses, kebabs, sausages, and various bits of offal, while never quite rising to the heights of the starters, display the same simple elemental style: what counts here is the quality of the ingredients and skill in their preparation. Many of the desserts are home-made, including a crepe and almond-like confection called Katayef. Mint tea and Lebanese coffee both help digestion and keep you talking into the night. Our meal for two - but big enough for four - cost pounds 34.85. Chez Marcelle has a delivery service

Chez Marcelle, 34 Blythe Road, London, W14 (0171-603 3241); open 7 days a week 12pm-12am, all credit cards accepted, no wheelchair access to toilets

Unlike pizzas, but like fish and chips, Middle Eastern cooking works as take-away. The Ranoush Juice Bar, on the Edgware Road, makes for a handy stop-off in and out of the West End, and offers not just juices but the full range of Lebanese take-aways - I won't insult them by calling them sandwiches. Mangal, a little hole in the wall in Stoke Newington, is rather less central, but even better. The grilled meat here is about the best in London. Both are open seven days and nights a week.

Ranoush Juice Bar, 43 Edgware Road, London W2 (0171-723 5929). Mangal, 10 Arcola Street, London E8 (0171-275 8981)

Comments