Jan Moir Are You Ready To Order
Spring is in the air. Daffodils burst out of window boxes and four men wheeze as they push a giant globe on castors down the street. It looks like something Sherlock Holmes might have in his study. I wonder if it opens up like a drinks cabinet? Is the Empire still pink? What do you think?
"What I think," says S, "is that it’s hideous. Now please concentrate on the menu. I’m starving."
Lucky, then, that we're in the right place. Al Bustan is situated on a busy street near South Kensington tube station, directly opposite Christie's auction rooms. It's not unusual to see people walking around with carved giraffes or some such under their arm, or wrestling a chandelier inside the saleroom as they try to sell off a bit of family history. Certainly fascinating to watch, although Al Bustan has its own distinguished history, too.
The restaurant is now situated in premises formerly occupied by Hilaire — where Simon Hopkinson and, later, Bryan Webb once cooked — although it built its reputation a mile or so eastwards, in the sunlit uplands of Belgravia. There, the chef, Ina'am Atalla, and her family ran a kitchen noted for its precise and delicate Lebanese food; its very careful preparations of the pulses, dips, vegetables, grills, herbs and pastries that characterise that nation's food. The racing billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum was a fan and regular client. The chef put a special vegetarian kibbeh Makhtoum on the menu in his honour, filled with ginger, mushrooms, carrots, peas, spinach and pine nuts, instead of the usual minced lamb.
That sounds good. Actually, I never used to see the point of kibbeh — in many London Lebanese restaurants, at any rate, it is usually served with a casing like an incinerated Scotch egg, with a few dry scraps of meat inside — until I tasted Ina'am's and realised that's what they are meant to be like, how completely delicious!
Anyway, now that the weather is becoming brighter, Lebanese food — with its cool salads and spiced grills — seems more tempting than usual, and nothing will suffice except a trip to Al Bustan's relatively new westerly premises.
The restaurant has an unusually old-fashioned, sweet-shop front, with curved glass windows and a central door that should really have a bell above it to ring loudly when you walk in. Inside, it is slightly cramped, but the service is swift and very professional.
On the menu, the usual selection of hot and cold mezze, plus a trio of raw lamb dishes, 10 different charcoal grills — including grilled prawns with a Lebanese tartare sauce, a boneless whole baby chicken served with a garlic sauce, and lamb cutlets with grilled tomatoes — and some traditional Lebanese home cooking. The latter includes chicken or lamb fillets cooked in what seems to be the house sauce — a fusion of coriander, garlic, mustard and lemon — or chicken wrapped in special bread and baked.
All very interesting, but in Lebanese restaurants, as in Lebanese life, it is the mezze that is the beating heart of any meal or social occasion and it is the mezze we have come here for today.
This may be fanciful, but before I knew about Ina'am Atalla or her excellent cookery book, Simply Lebanese, there was something about the delicacy and thoroughness of Al Bustan's food that made me think: "I bet a woman cooked this." It's there in the lightness of the falafel — crisp little doughnuts of chickpeas and broad beans flavoured with coriander and cumin, and served with a cool pool of tahini sauce, lifted with a touch of lemon and some parsley. It's there in the masterful fatayer — tiny, light pastries filled with spinach — and I also like the precision of the moutabbal smoked aubergine dip, usually served with too much lemon juice, but here richly flavoured and generously scattered with pomegranate seeds.
The seeds pop up again in fattoush, which is the most important salad in Lebanese cuisine and quite often the centrepiece of any mezze or meal. The only other place where salad is given such a star billing must be in California.
The Al Bustan fattoush is a heaped, generous bowl of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes and green peppers roughly chopped up and anointed with a sumac-rich dressing. Sumac is a vital ingredient, the dried, powdered berry that provides a puckering, lemony freshness to many dishes and was originally used as a lemon substitute before people began to like it for itself. Some mint and a handful of ruby pomegranate seeds finish off this amazing salad, which is almost enough for a meal in itself. It certainly makes you long for a really blistering, hot day, so you can eat some fattoush and cool down.
Elsewhere, the mezze keep coming — creamy hummus with flat breads, an incredibly fresh tabbouleh parsley salad, some slices of spicy sojok sausages served with lemon, and the almost mandatory mixed pickles called kabis. Everything, right down to the last little pickle, is carefully prepared and of very high quality.
Main courses such as grilled chicken shish taouk and lamb shawerma both feature good superior meats nicely marinated and served with those highly desirable lightly charred edges. And to finish in a healthy mood, you could eschew those little Lebanese pastries and have some fresh fruit instead — mangoes or carefully shaved prickly pears, perhaps.
Rosé wine is always a good match for this cuisine and Al Bustan sells a gris de gris Château Ksara which I think suits the food perfectly. Those keen on a well-made red could opt for the Château Musar. The staff are very keen on getting home early, so don't expect to linger long over a nice bottle or a late dinner.
- Al Bustan, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (020 7584 5805). Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £60. Set lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £20.