North Bailey, Durham
We are staying in a beautiful cottage in County Durham for an important family celebration – it’s Susan’s mum’s seventieth birthday. The area has been selected purely because it is equidistant for all parties to travel to, and tonight there are eight hungry mouths to feed. Susan’s dad has booked us in to this lively city centre restaurant offering ‘authentic Lebanese cuisine,’ so off we go. It’s a Saturday evening and, when we arrive the place is already rammed, with a lengthy queue at the door for those people who haven’t reserved a place, but our table is all ready and waiting, so in we go.
The staff are super friendly and, considering how busy the venue is, very efficient. We have two vegetarians and a vegan in our party, as well as five committed carnivores, and there’s plenty of choice for everyone. Our orders are quickly taken and, despite the fact that all the food is freshly prepared, the first courses arrive in double quick time, though it’s important to note that we are never made to feel hurried. Since the portions appear to be on the generous side, Susan and I opt to share a mixed starter, which comprises eight traditional Lebanese dishes – hummus, moustabal baba ghanoush, warak inab (stuffed grape leaves), tabbouleh, labneh (yoghurt cheese), falafel, batata harra and jebne halloumi. The dish is a veritable cornucopia of different flavours, each more appetising than the last, and is served with a garlic sauce and a plate of warm Lebanese bread, so light and paper-like it virtually melts in the mouth. The batata harra (spiced potato) is a particular highlight for me, and the falafel is light and perfectly spiced, but to be honest, it’s all very scoffable (though Susan isn’t too mad about the baba ganoush (smoky aubergine dip). That’s definitely an acquired taste.
For the main course, we both go for a lamb dish – Susan has the lahem meshwi, freshly grilled cubes of meat, served once again with that tangy garlic sauce, some lightly grilled vegetables and a heap of crispy fries. It’s very good. I opt for chargrilled chops and they arrive, all six of them, accompanied by a heap of aromatic rice, some lightly grilled peppers and onions and scattered with delightful little shreds of Lebanese pickle. (Again, the latter are not for everyone, but I love them.) There’s something extremely primal about eating lamb chops and these are prepared exactly as I like them, the meat still succulent but blackened just enough to give them a satisfying crunch. Across from the table, the new septuagenerian is happily tucking in to hake fillets (again, a huge portion) and, to my left, the resident vegan announces that he’s very happy with his chickpea and aubergine moussaka.
Okay, these may not be the most elegant looking dishes on the planet, but this is hearty, satisfying fare and I really cannot find fault with it. For a large group of people with different culinary needs, this is an inspired choice of venue.
We’re pleasantly full – too full for pudding, as it happens, but well aware as we troop out into the night that there are still hopefuls in the doorway, queuing for tables. Lebaneat have clearly got their proposition spot on. Offer the public generous portions of freshly cooked food at decent prices and train your staff to be both efficient and friendly and people will beat a path to your door.
Will we eat here again? Well, it’s a very long commute from Edinburgh but, next time we’re up this way, it’s certainly a place worth seeking out.