Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
Published April 8th 2018
Review of the Middle Eastern Restaurant
Middle Eastern restaurants are the flavour of the moment in Birmingham with several opening up. The latest is Lebanese canteen Comptoir Libanais in Grand Central and here's a review of what's on offer.
Lebanese food in a casual environment at Grand Central
Comptoir Libanais, meaning Lebanese counter, is part of a national chain of restaurants set up by Tony Kitous. His aim was to create a place people could casually eat no fuss halal-friendly Middle Eastern food in a souk-like setting, hence rows of bags, teapots and other priced paraphernalia on shelves around the cafe.
Surprisingly, it's taken 10 years for a Comptoir Libanais to reach Birmingham, with the first one opening in 2008 in London and then spreading across the rest of the country.
Your first impression is the vibrancy that welcomes you to the canteen. Bright coloured tiles, windows and pop culture murals shine bright and there's a busy feel to the place with every spot covered in pretend merchandise to give a souk marketplace atmosphere.
Based above New Street Station in Grand Central, it is open from 8am until 10pm from Monday to Saturday and between 10am and 9pm on Sunday, which is handy for those meeting for food before getting the train home.
The entrance to Comptoir Libanais in Birmingham
Even the menu is bright with pinks, greens and oranges offering specials and explanations of Lebanese spices and dishes jumping out at you.
It's all halal but the restaurant does serve alcohol too and there's a list of spice influenced cocktails. There's a Comptoir version of a Cosmopolitan, for example, that has a stronger fruitier flavour and is a plumy deep red colour as it is made with pomegranate juice along with the usual vodka and orange liqueur at £7.95.
There's also an extensive range of various flavoured homemade lemonades with vodka for £7.95 too. While beer-wise, there are three bottled beers on the menu - Almaza from Lebanon, Effes from Turkey and Casablanca from Morocco.
The menu is pleasantly extensive. There's a mezze platter that offers a plentiful starter (the mezze for one is large enough for two people to share at £9.95) with a host of delights including falafel, grilled halloumi, hummus and the most delicious fresh salad I've tasted, containing crispy lettuce leaves, chopped parsley and mint.
Other starters include a range of cold dips with pitta bread, such as hummus or a smoked aubergine mix with pomegranate seeds called baba ghanuj.
The mezze platter for one that is big enough to share
The hot mezze options range from grilled halloumi marinated in wild thyme to falafel and spicy marinated chicken wings. These smaller dishes - both cold and hot - all range in price from £4.75 to 6.25.
Elsewhere on the menu, there's grills and wraps, various large salads, tagines, fattets and specials such as halloumi and zaatar man'ousha flat bread; roasted chicken mossakhan and sea bass samke peiruti - the fish roasted in spices and served with a sauce on saffron rice and with a salad.
Don't worry if you've not heard of these dishes before as the menu gives a good explanation, as do the servers. With so much available, it was hard to choose but I ended up being persuaded by the waitress to try the mixed grill. This had a variety of tender spiced meat varieties of kofta (kebabs) that had been grilled on skewers.
The mixed grill offers a selection of kofta
There were three portions (pictured above) of deliciously spiced and tender meats - lamb and chicken koftas along with a chicken shish taouk - accompanied by salad and vermicelli rice for £13.95. Aromatic and enticing, the dish lacked any pretentions, it was just packed with flavour and well balanced.
My friend opted for the chicken and green olive tagine, which is one of the curry style options on the menu, and cost £10.95. The chicken breast was marinated beautifully with lemon, olive and carrot flavours and had a sumptuous sauce. Be warned, the portion sizes are large, so as delicious as it was, my guest found it hard to finish, especially after the generous size of the mezze platter too.
On the dessert side of things, there's less choice than the savoury offerings and a mix of middle eastern sweets and western desserts with a twist, priced between £4 and £5. There's baklava, of course, along with chocolate and tahini flavoured brownie, mango cheesecake or a traditional Lebanese milk pudding with rose syrup called mouhalabia.
There's also ice creams that come with date syrup and roasted mixed nuts or pomegranate and orange blossom. Interestingly, there's a warning on the menu that most of the desserts contain nuts, which may limit the choice for some diners.
Bright colours and merchandise create a souk atmosphere
As delicious as the food is, the restaurant had only been open a few weeks when I visited and there were some teething problems over the service, including some drinks and food spilt and a hectic approach to clearing tables. It was early days and hopefully, service and how they greet customers will become smoother and calmer in coming weeks.
The only other downside is that there is one toilet - a mixed-sex disabled toilet - for all the customers and this place is already getting busy. I'm surprised that more attention hasn't been paid to that.