You cannot fail to notice the new branch of Comptoir Libanais on The Oracle riverside.
A multi-coloured glittering box with a terrace, it looks exciting.
And it is – for packed into this little box are all the colours, flavours and smells of Lebanese food, the most underrated food until a few years ago, when it spread out of London.
Floral chairs, sequinned baskets, silver teapots, retro boxes of Turkish Delight, big bowls of nougat and pastries are crammed into nooks and crannies and pictures of famous faces wearing fezzes like Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and George Michael adorn the walls.
And while the interior is gloriously kitsch, the real glory is in the food. Our mezze platter (£9.95 for one) was packed – silky humous spiked with chickpeas, satiny baba ganoush, sumac-dusted pitta, a nutty freekeh salad, a verdant tabbouleh, grilled minty halloumi and neon pink pickles. It’s £16.95 for two but you need a big appetite.
A fattoush salad, a favourite of mine, was excellent – crispy Romaine, tomatoes, onion, mint and parsley with little slices of toasted pitta and dotted with pomegranate seeds (there are lots of pomegranate seeds on dishes which we loved).
We finished off our vodka lemonades – mine an apple, ginger and mint variety and my dining companion’s pomegranate and orange blossom - with our mezze and just everything was zinging with flavour.
Our mains were equally generous – a lamb and green peas tagine (£10.95) was buttery lamb, green peas and baby carrots in a spiky tomato and coriander sauce with couscous was pronounced divine.
And what we left of the big portion we got to take away.
My Chicken Shish Taouk (£10.45) was six hefty chunks of tender marinated chicken breast with garlic, apple vinegar and thyme served with a sweet roasted tomato and vermicelli rice (rice and vermicelli strands). It had a dollop of minty yogurt on the rice and two dipping sauces – creamy and sharp yogurt and warming harissa.
I defy you not to ask for a rest between mains and dessert – the array of baklawa dotted around will mean you will be tempted too.
After a decent pause, we plumped for a selection of six pieces of baklawa (£4.25 and a discussion with our lovely Algerian waiter Adam about the pronunciation of baklawa as I used the Greek way!).
These came dotted with slivers of pistachio nuts and were drenched in syrup. A real taste of holidays and though I have no idea what it’s called my favourite was the diamond shaped one with a thick nut filling.
We also had the prettiest Rose Mouhalabia Milk Pudding (£4.45), a traditional Lebanese milk pudding flavoured with rose syrup and toasted pistachios. This was not oversweet as we had thought it would be and proved a really refreshing finale.
Comptoir Libanais’s staff could not have been more helpful – supervisor Victoria and waiter Adam happy to explain dishes and give recommendations.
We were so full after we could not face picking a flavour of Turkish Delight to take home – deciding to pop in another day just for that. The packets and boxes start at under £3.
I don’t think I have enjoyed a meal out more this year – the Lebanese flavours are bang on and the atmosphere is great.
Don’t wait until you’re on a shopping trip to go there – it really is worth a trip just to eat there.
(words/selected images originally published in The Wokingham Paper)