My love for Lebanese food harks back to many years ago, when a small family-run Middle-Eastern restaurant opened, of all places, in my sleepy hometown in the middle of nowhere. Back then, in the early 2000s, it was the talk of the town; I’d go there often, both with friends and family, as it was everyone’s favourite option when we didn’t quite feel like having pizza. We’d hail falafel as the most inventive vegetarian dish we’d ever had, and learn how to eat takeaway shawarma wraps without soiling our hands with oil dripping from the tinfoil. We’d devour dips and warm flatbreads as if there was no tomorrow, and then wolf down our main courses with undiminished ardour. If I could taste hoummus, moutabel and baklava long before moving to London, I owe it to that place, which set my standards for genuine, affordable Middle-Eastern cooking. Fast forward thirteen years, it’s become one branch of a larger chain, the quality of its cooking marred by lower range ingredients and microwaves. Sad times – but hey, I live in London now, I should be able to eat that stuff whenever I please. Or not.
The truth is, I get to eat it far less than I used to back home. On average, it’s more pricey than most other cuisines: not the easiest thing you can order loads of when on a budget. So when my parents came to visit, and asked me where to eat good Lebanese food for dinner, my mind drew a blank. Noura is at the high end of a scale I don’t know I’ll ever be able to climb. Maroush screams Knightsbridge to me, and money-wise, that’s not a good omen either. Then I remembered Al Waha, and all the rave reviews I’d read about it. Best Lebanese food in London, and good value for money? Sounds like a winner to me. As for Mum and Dad, they’ll follow me anywhere, if I promise that the food is good and I’ll translate the menu for them.
The starters, of which we ordered a varied bunch to share, were the definite highlight of our meal. We had one plain flatbread and one sesame bread each, both delightfully fresh, soft and warm. They paired perfectly with both the hoummus (by all means the creamiest I’ve ever seen, even though it could have done with a bit more zest) and moutabel, the latter being the best aubergine dip I have memory of, thanks to its strong smoky notes and silky texture. The falafel were well cooked and seasoned, as you’d expect from a restaurant with Al Waha’s reputation, and kibbeh maklieh (crushed wheat fritters stuffed with minced lamb, onion and nuts) sent me on a blissful trip down memory lane: I was still in my teens when I last ate them at my former local Middle-Eastern eatery. Al Waha makes them just as good as I remembered them: crispy, generous in filling, and not a single bit dry.
We could have stopped there, and headed home sated and happy. Curiosity and greed prevailed: our meal thus far had been so good, we all felt encouraged to try a main we’d never had before. My parents and I went for similar dishes, based on yoghurt, bread and meat. Mine, fatteh bil lahmeh, was completely different from all the Lebanese recipes I knew from before. The menu promised “tender cuts of lamb served on a bed of yoghurt and toasted bread, topped with parsley, pomegranate and pine nuts”, which to me implied a generous portion of meat, lightly seasoned with yoghurt, to be scooped up with crispy bread. What I got, instead, was a huge bowl of warm yoghurt, with meat pieces, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds and bread chunks dipped in. It took me long to figure out whether I liked it or not. Eating hot yoghurt and meat by the spoonful felt weird in the beginning, but took little to adjust to; in the end, it was just like having a thick, oily soup. The bread, on the other hand, was soggy, as if it had been left in the bowl for hours, rather than toasted and added in at the end; a shame, as crunchier bread would have done wonders for the texture. While I don’t regret trying fatteh bih lahmeh, I can’t silence the part of me that insists I should have ordered grilled meat. Deep down, I know I’d have enjoyed a mean plate of chicken meshwi much more; exciting as it is to discover new flavours, sometimes tried and tested favourites are just what you need.
My partner’s kibbeh bil sayniyeh was the oven-baked version of the wheat and lamb fritters we had as starters. Contrarily to these, though, it was rather dry; too much for a dish that size, which begs to be eaten to the last bite. Perhaps a vegetable side might have made it easier to digest, although I can assure you that, after a feast of starters and a large main, “easy” is just about the last word you’ll feel like associating to your digestion. We nearly didn’t touch the complimentary baklava at the end; greed took over, again, and perhaps we shouldn’t have listened this time. Overly rich in butter and flaky in texture, as opposed to the firm, honey-drenched baklavas I love, they were the only lowlight of our meal, just like the waiter who blatantly ignored our prompts to give us our change was the only hitch in what we found to be very professional service. These are niggles, though; Al Waha proved us that a Lebanese restaurant that can fill our nearly insatiable stomachs, please our demanding palates, and charge reasonable prices at the same time is no utopia. Now that’s a new thing I learn about London.
75 Westbourne Grove
London, W2 4UL
(nearest tube stations: Royal Oak, Bayswater, Notting Hill Gate)
Open daily, 12.00 – 23.00
020 7229 0806