Thursday, 23 June 2011
Al Waha, Westbourne Grove
In stark contrast to some other world cuisines I could care to mention (*cough* Mexican *cough* Thai *cough*) it seems there are a lot of very good Lebanese restaurants in London. A casual enquiry on Twitter as to which of them was worth visiting drew a huge list of recommendations from all over the place, along with some remarkably enthusiastic reviews - "Maroush Juice serves the best halloumi in the world"; "Mr Falafel...puts crack in his falafels"; "Levant on Wigmore street - excellent food, swanky restaurant". So, spoiled for choice and fairly confident most of the places on fhe shortlist would have served a decent meal, we in the end booked Al Waha on Westbourne Grove, based on the fact that it was relatively easy for both myself and my dinner date to get home, and that the tips had been ever so slightly more slavering than for anywhere else.
One of the "problems" of crowd sourcing restaurant tips on Twitter is that the experience you end up with is probably quite different to if you'd just wandered in off the street and made the most of anything on the menu you recognised as edible. We turned up at Al Waha with a good half-dozen "must order" items, some of which weren't even on the printed menu, and so there's a possibility our eclectic ordering impressed the kitchen staff into trying that little bit harder (well, you never know), not to mention that the dishes themselves were possibly the cream of what Al Waha can produce. That said, the meal we constructed for ourselves through the power of social media stands up as possibly the best Lebanese food I've ever eaten in the capital; never less than good, and often astonishing.
The first proper dish to arrive was a bowl of Fattoush (£4.50), a vegetable and herb salad livened by crispy slivers of deep-fried pita bread. It is a dish - like most salads - that relies upon absolutely fresh ingredients to be anything more than edible, but fortunately here it was excellent, full of interesting textures and aromatic flavours.
Falafel (£4.50) were, I'm afraid, rather under seasoned and needed either a lot more salt or a lot more of the miserly portion of sesame dressing they arrived with. It's a shame, too, as the timing on the frying was perfect, creating a lovely crust and soft insides. Perhaps an off day on the falafels, but they were still decent enough.
Chicken wings (Jawaneh meshwiyeh) (£5), crisply fried and dressed in a punchy garlic sauce had a great grilled flavour but I just didn't like the way they'd hacked each wing in half across the bone; chicken marrow makes me queasy and anyway, isn't it far more fun when you disassemble a chicken wing yourself than have it hacked apart before you get the chance? Again though, you could pick fault but you could still very easily enjoy.
Things really stepped up a gear with arrival of Kibbeh Nayeh (£10), a simply brilliant dish of raw lamb mixed with crushed wheat and punchy - but balanced - spices. Artfully presented, arranged into bitesize portions and topped with fried onions and what I think was chunks of moist liver, it was a delight to eat, addictively chillified and uniquely Lebanese. Also superb was a dish of Hummous Kawarmah (£6), the house hummous soft and light as whipped cream and topped with chunks of salty lamb and pine nuts.
Sojuk Sadah (£5.50) were one of a couple of types of house spicy sausage, softer in texture than you might expect and packed full of zingy spice. I suppose they could be described as a sort of Lebanese chorizo, with a similar kind of oily fire, and went down a storm. But even better than that, and our favourite dish overall - all the more amazing considering it was just something we'd spotted on the menu and didn't come recommended as such from anyone - were sweetbreads (haliwat) cooked absolutely to crusty, wobbly perfection in a light lemon dressing and surely the bargain of the year at £7.50 a plate. I have rarely, if ever, had sweetbreads cooked this well in some of the top Michelin-starred restaurants in the country; they disappeared in seconds.
I don't know if Al Waha is the "best" (whatever that means) Lebanese restaurant in London. And I'm not going to pretend it was perfect - the Lebanese wine at £13.50 a half bottle was fairly horrible (my friend thought it could have been corked but we gingerly sipped at it anyway) and the annoying cover charge of £1.50 a head seemed to get you little more than a tiny bowl of boring olives and a bizarre basket of raw, undressed vegetables that defied use or explanation (what exactly am I expected to do with a whole spring onion!?). But it is very easy to ignore such niggles when the rest of the meal (and, I should also mention, the friendly and attentive service) was of such a high standard, and more than that, a couple of the dishes - the lamb kibbeh, the sweetbreads - were worth any amount of hardship. Al Waha is a treasure, and I will certainly be back.