Updated: Friday, 24th November 2017 @ 8:08am

MM get a taste for Lebanese restaurant set to spice up Manchester's food scene

MM get a taste for Lebanese restaurant set to spice up Manchester's food scene

| By Andy Donley

Londoners may not be famous for their hospitality, but when they originate from Lebanon, the story is entirely different.

Comptoir Libanais – a Lebanese restaurant chain with eleven branches dotted around the London area – is coming to Manchester. And if that doesn’t excite you, then it should.

MM was invited down to London to sample Comptoir’s delights ahead of their Northern expansion, their newest restaurant set to open its doors in early November, having secured a prime spot of real estate in Spinningfields.

After being warned to bring a hearty appetite – something which was almost scuppered by a sausage muffin on the train down – our first stop was their Chelsea eatery.


ENTICING: MM went to London to taste Comptoir's Lebanese cuisine

The sun was shining brightly outside, but inside the colours were even brighter with pinks of pomegranate, pickled turnip and rose syrup contrasting with the bold, orange décor.

Each Comptoir is designed to resemble a souk, an Arab marketplace, with the inspiration derived from ‘the real life experiences’ of founder Tony Kitous, whose creativity and attention to detail have helped him to create a series of casual and characterful eateries.

The souk concept ensures that Comptoir is more than just a restaurant.

‘Comptoir Libanais’ means Lebanese counter, and it is the counters that exude the aura of the bazaar, with enticing pickles, dips, breads and grilled meats available to eat in and takeaway.


'COMPTOIR LIBANAIS': The counter contained lots of colourful treats

Tony has also developed a line of merchandise, ranging from ingredients and cookbooks, to beautifully embroidered bags, inspired by those his mother once took to markets in his native Algeria where, as he informed us, ‘you didn’t have plastic Tesco bags’.

Amongst the shelves of attractively packaged oils and honeys and prettily painted crockery is a woman’s face – a face also seen on the front of the menus and cookbooks.

Sirine Jamal al Dine was a star of vintage Arabic movies, and a face that Tony remembers from his youth.

As such, her portrait was adopted as the restaurant’s insignia, and she gazed down on the red metal stools and turquoise tables, around which we gathered in eager anticipation.

First out were jugs of handmade lemonades and rose syrup and mint tea – the Roomana pomegranate and orange blossom lemonade was fantastically fragrant and refreshing, and a portent for what was to come.


REFRESHING: A large number of homemade iced drinks were perfect on a sunny day

Next were an array of dips; delicious hommos, strained organic yoghurt served with olive oil called labneh, and a fantastic baba ghanuj – pureed smoked aubergine with lemon juice and tahini and, like so many of Comptoir’s dishes, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, which burst with flavour whilst adding an vivid splash of colour.

Mezze platters followed, with salads including an outstanding fatoush, with pomegranate and mint starring again alongside crispy pitta croutons, lamb parcels named kibbeh and marinated halloumi, that had more than one person around the table casting aside previous suspicions over the oft-squeaky cheese.

Already a fair amount of food had been shifted, but the main courses had not yet arrived.

A series of rich tagines, serving couscous, vermicelli rice and flatbreads were a fitting centre piece to a rather luxurious banquet.


FROM THE GRILL: Koftas and shish were served with Lebanese potatos, 'Batata Harra'

Mana’esh was also a winner: Lebanese flatbreads topped with tomato, halloumi and spicy Armenian sausage which tasted fantastic when sprinkled with harissa sauce.

And finally the desserts came, with Lebanese baklawa and chocolate and cranberry brownie for those not quite defeated by the magnitude of food, and orange blossom and pomegranate sprinkled frozen yoghurt was the more faint-hearted.

Foremost among the puddings however was the mouhalabia, a traditional milk pudding not dissimilar to a panna cotta, flavoured with rose syrup and toasted pistachios.

It was light enough to alleviate any after effects of the hearty tagines, and the fragrantly delicious rose syrup exemplified everything that is good about Comptoir’s cuisine.


NO LANGUAGE BARRIERS: A glossary in the menu ensures you know what you're ordering

Before the meal, Tony explained how he was passionate about a lot of different cuisines, but that he wanted his twist on Lebanese food to provide something different.

“I love Indian food, Chinese food, Italian food, but all these things I can only eat once a week,” he said.

“I want people to see our food as something they can have four or five times a week – I want them to come in for breakfast in the morning then come back to eat again in the evening.”

The secret to this lies not in the tasty tagines, nor the grilled meats that we sampled in the Liverpool Street branch – chief amongst which was the lamb kofta, left pink and seasoned generously.

Comptoir Libanais’ strength lies in its mezze; their dreamy hummus and fantastic salads, their delicate use of unusual and fascinating flavours, with rose and orange blossom chief amongst them.

At Kensington South and Liverpool Street, Lebanese lagers and wines were sampled and enjoyed, whilst those cornerstones of Comptoir cuisine – orange blossom, rose syrup, pomegranate, mint – also featured in the cocktails to good effect.


COMPTOIR ICED TEA: A Lebanese twist on a classic Long Island

Each restaurant has individual nuances, a charisma that Tony insists on instilling and which the Manchester branch will be tasked with replicating.

Over all, what Comptoir’s newest addition will be tasked with creating is, in Tony’s words, ‘an informal atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable’.

One thing is for sure, after several beers, wines and cocktails, and a bellyful of highly enjoyable Lebanese cuisine, Comptoir Libanais hadn’t just succeeded in making MM feel comfortable in their restaurants, but on the train journey home as well.