A real Mid­dle East­ern treat

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - Joanna Blyth­man

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.


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