A real Middle Eastern treat
IT’S at least two years since I heard a publisher on the Radio 4 Food Programme speculating that the already wellestablished fashion for Middle Eastern food had lots of mileage in it yet. She was right. If it wasn’t for the fact that I love pomegranates I’d be getting irritated by the way they’ve become quite commonplace on restaurant plates, notably in establishments with no roots in the Middle East.
As the copycat Ottolenghi effect continues to ripple through non-Levantine restaurants, you wonder if the original wave of Middle Eastern restaurants feels upstaged. For years they’ve maintained an evenly dull sameness. They rarely serve an outright bad meal, but they don’t thrill either: standard dishes, no sparkle.
But Glasgow’s new Lebanese restaurant, Beirut Star, is like a shooting star in this firmament. In the heart of Ibrox, just opposite the Madrassa Al-Arabia Al-Islamia mosque, it caters for a strikingly diverse population. What’s stimulating about Beirut Star is that it feels like eating in a foreign country. It’s how I imagine a Lebanese restaurant in a bustling street corner in Lebanon would be: big, confident, smartly appointed, serving a savvy customer base steeped in its native cuisine.
Two wall-sized pictures of the ancient site of Baalbek and the Pigeon Rocks in Raouché catch the eye along with the huge, curving, opulent gold letters that say “Love Glasgow”. We’re given a warm, smiling welcome, and it feels like being on holiday; I wish I could order in Arabic. Our waiter has limited English but makes sense of my mispronunciations as I mangle the names of dishes. In any case, you can order by number.
We’re very late for lunch but the chefs go into action: deft chopping of herbs, sizzles and spluttering as food hits oil. Straight away the fattoush primes our senses to expect formidable freshness. Crunchy gem lettuce, shavings of radish and cucumber, abundant flat parsley, amber-fried pitta that shatters on contact with the fork, glisten in tangy pomegranate molasses speckled with sour sumac. This salad has been made to order, not lying around in the cold counter.
The mujadara is made with the customary brown lentils, but with cracked wheat rather than rice, and topped with grass-thin strands of golden fried onions and toasted almonds. Off your food? This simple but exquisite dish will restore your appetite. The “foul”, broad beans, half-liquefied, half-bashed, demonstrate just how divine beans can be, a mildly garlicky slurry, bracingly spiked with lemon juice under a circle of peppery emerald green olive oil and generous handful of fresh coriander.
Like the Egyptian equivalent, Beirut Star’s falafels, conical in shape, like rondavels, are made with broad beans, not chickpeas, and there’s some sesame seed in their soft, salty, gently spiced depths. They’re napped in a velvety tahini sauce that’s once more invigoratingly sour with lemon. I’ve been disappointed by makloobeh (reheated rice and meat) in other restaurants, but this is a splendid dish. The fragrant rice owes its blush to fine strands of red pepper and fresh tomato cooked in its steamy cinnamonscented depths. It’s topped with melting, crusty lamb that’s just been spit-roasted to order, aubergine fried to a molten, savoury bronze, more golden flaked almonds, and encircled with a bracelet of thinly sliced ripe tomatoes.
Our “kibbeh b’laban” constitute another revelation because the soft minced meat, onions and pine nuts are only just bound with the cracked wheat, and they’re served hot in a sauce of grainy warm yoghurt that wafts mint. There’s more of this outstanding lamb in the sambusak, but in these little triangular delights it simply binds the tangle of spinach and pine nuts that burst out of the short, friable pastry.
Everything we’ve eaten tastes like homemade food, not restaurant reheats. Is that palate that seeks sharp, refreshing sourness characteristically Lebanese, I wonder? I love it anyway.
With mint tea we’re given complimentary, mouthful-sized pastries, one rolled, one layered; buttery sweet, they taste so fresh, like everything else we’ve eaten. Thank heavens, or Allah be praised, for the culinary pleasures that immigrants bring us.