I can’t claim to be an expert in Lebanese food; not even close. It’s not even a cuisine I’ve cooked much at home.
But I did spend a most wonderful holiday in Lebanon a few years ago, in which our entire focus was to enjoy the delights of the Lebanese table.
Under the wing of our expert guides, we toured the country from north to south, from cosmopolitan city to village farm, from coast to mountain to valley, seeking out the best examples of traditional cuisine. We watched a butcher-baker make lamb filled pastries by selecting, butchering and mincing the meat, adding the requisite spices, filling the mixture into pastry cases and baking them in the wood-fired oven at the back of the shop; we sat in a casual coastal restaurant perched precariously above the waves themselves, eating fresh seafood that we’d helped select from a fishmonger only moments before; we learned how to make spicy soujuk sausages from a local chef, part of an enormous feast we helped cook; we learned about za’atar from humble expert Abu Kassem and his wife Fatima; we watched one of three sisters deftly shape and fill dough to create a spiral pastry that we devoured as soon as it was baked; we tried the best apricot jam in the world with warm halloumi, fresh out of the cooking vat and hand-strained labneh rich enough for royalty; we reeked of garlic after insisting on extra toum in the chicken wraps from our favourite Beiruti source of fast food, and followed it with ice cream from the oldest ice cream store in town, still making delicious mastic-based recipes; we visited wineries and honey farms; we wandered through markets, wondering at ingredients both familiar and un-; we ate at tiny stalls, in cosy cafes and elegant restaurants; we puffed on hookahs in between feasting on mezze and grilled meats … in short, we tasted Lebanon and we loved it!
Since that trip, I can’t say I’ve faithfully trekked around all London’s Lebanese restaurants, but the few I’ve tried have been a mixed bag. The chicken wrap with toum at Yalla Yalla took me straight back to Beirut but lacklustre mezze at other establishments have been bland and without the vitality we enjoyed in Lebanon.
Recently, I found out about a Lebanese restaurant in my neck of the woods; Southgate is just a 12 minute drive from me – far quicker than heading into central London on the tube. Warda is just a few paces from Southgate tube station and there are also a number of bus routes that service the immediate area; we were able to park just outside the restaurant, free after 6.30 pm.
The team behind Warda is an illustrious one: Pierre Hobeika and (chef) Youssef Harb first met in Beirut many years ago, working for the same restaurant. When Pierre came to London, Youssef followed shortly afterwards and the two have worked together for most of their careers since. Both worked at renowned Mayfair restaurant Fakhreldine before it closed in 2012 and jointly owned and managed another restaurant together in the noughties. Last year, Pierre and Youssef opened Warda, alongside a third partner, Mo (Alex) Housaini.
Here, they share authentic Lebanese cuisine, prepared and cooked to order using high quality ingredients.
A few moment after we sat down, a colourful plate of salad was brought out – crunchy crudités and sharp, vinegary pickled chillies provided a lovely way to whet the appetite.
I was delighted to find Jallab (£3.50) in the non-alcoholic drinks list. Made with date and grape syrup, crushed ice and pine nuts, this sweet drink is one I enjoyed many times on our holiday. I bought some ready-made jallab syrup home with me and noticed immediately that Warda’s version has far more complexity of flavour, with a hint of smokiness that is a lovely balance against the sweet.
Pete was happy to start with a bottle of Almaza beer (£3.50) and later, a glass of Lebanese red wine called Plaisir du Vin, from Chateau Heritage. Selected by Pierre it was full-bodied, in a classic French style, and a suitably robust match for the punchy flavours of the food. The wine list is wonderfully affordable, by the way, with bottles starting at just £17 and a strong showing for Lebanese offerings.
As is traditional, we decided to start with a feast of mezze. We chose à la carte, with additional suggestions from Pierre. Warda also offers a number of set menus which include 6, 8 or 12 mezze with main courses, baklava and tea or coffee.
Several of the mezze come in a small or larger portion size, or by the piece for pastries, parcels and croquettes.
Baba ghanoush (£4.75/ £2.75) is delightfully smoky and rich and I love the texture, with strands of silky aubergine instead of a processed puree. This is a dish that can so easily be bland or oily; this one is neither.
I’m not usually a fan of okra yet I keep going back to the Bemieh bil zeit (£4.50/ £2.50), a rich stew of okra in a garlic, onion and tomato sauce.
The innocuous sounding Al Rahib (£4.75/ £2.50), which translates to “the monk”, turns out to be one of my very favourites. It doesn’t look pretty but oh my, there’s something magical about the combination of grilled aubergine (smoky, like the baba ghanoush) with a salad of tomato, onion, parsley, mint and lemon. If I could eat this every day, I’d be happy.
Little Soujouk (£5.50) sausages and cherry tomatoes glisten with a coating of pomegranate molasses, the sharp-sweet syrup adding an extra note to the spiced meat. Pierre mentioned that they are superb dipped into the hoummos and he’s right, the combination is fabulous.
Hoummos awarma (£5.75) – smooth rich hoummos topped with marinated lamb and pine nuts (and a drizzle of olive oil) – is another winner. The quality of the lamb is excellent and a bowl of this and pita bread would be a fine lunch on its own.
The distinctive shape of Kibbé mekliyeh (£1.10 a piece) is so evocative, as is the perfectly spiced lamb mince, onion and pine nut mixture within these deep-fried bulgur parcels.
Warak inab (£4.50 /£2.50) vine leaves filled with filled with parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions & rice provide a pleasingly citrussy counter note to the richness of the other mezze.
The first bite of Sfiha pastries (£5.50) is another transporting moment, taking me straight back to the butcher-baker near Baalbeck. Pastry and spiced lamb are both spot on.
Lastly, we try Samke harra (£6.00) – sea bass in a spicy tomato sauce, this one much lighter and fresher than the more intense flavours of the bemieh bil zeit. For a light eater, a portion of this with one or two salads would make a perfect meal.
Already full, we intend to follow the magnificent mezze with just one grilled meat main, but Pierre is keen to add one of the non-grill specialities, steering us towards Five-spice lamb and bukhari rice (£14). This slow-cooked lamb shank dish is a revelation; like my reaction to several of the mezze, I am actually giddy and giggling with delight. The spicing is so beautifully balanced and the sauce has just a hint of sourness that reminds me of Persian meat stews. The lamb is, once again, superb quality meat and I can’t help but fall back on that old cliché – meltingly soft. As if that isn’t enough, the wonderfully savoury bukhari rice is richly jewelled with plump sultanas, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and tiny slivers of bright carrot.
The Mixed meat grill (£12.50) gives us one each of lamb kafta (minced lamb kebab), taouk (marinated chicken cubes), lahim meshue (cubes of lamb) and chicken kafta (minced chicken kebab), served with a portion of vermicelli rice, an onion and herb salad and pungent toum (garlic sauce). Bought to the table covered in flatbread, to keep the kebabs warm, this dish is as good as all the rest.
We had no intention of having dessert, but bow to the inevitable when we see Pierre’s crestfallen expression. When he realises that the Awamet (£4.50) fried fritters with orange blossom syrup we chose are not available, Pierre instead serves us a taster of the various desserts available.
First, Tehlayi Jnoubieh (£5), a selection of halwa, fig jam and carob syrup served with bread for dipping. Lebanese halwa is quite unlike the Indian semolina (sooji ka) halwa that I’m familiar with, which is thick, slightly sloppy when warm and a little more set when cool; instead it’s dry and firm and reminds me somewhat of nougat, albeit with a crumblier texture. Tiny whole figs preserved in an intensely sweet jam are a little too sweet for me. I am unexpectedly taken with the carob molasses, something I haven’t tried before. I’ve since discovered that it’s a speciality of the mountain region near to Beirut, and was a traditional alternative to sugar. Apparently, it’s particularly tasty mixed with tahini, something I must now try!
Also on the wooden board of treats is a half portion of Osmalyieh (£4.50), light and crunchy vermicelli biscuits with wonderfully fresh crème de lait topped with different fruit jams – orange blossom, strawberry and peach. Even as full as we are, we devour these little delights.
To try and wake up from our feast-induced torpor, we ask for Lebanese coffee (available with or without cardamom). Like Turkish coffee, it’s served shockingly strong, to be sipped cautiously from tiny cups. Usually, this coffee would be far too intense for me, but to my surprise, I enjoy it, though I only manage one cup.
At the end, assorted Baklawa (£4.50), beautiful morsels of honey, nuts and crunchy pastry.
It’s not often that a meal can so successfully transport me to another place – most commonly I’m disappointed by lack of authenticity and left shaking my head, wondering if the food I so enjoyed on holiday seemed special only through the euphoria of the holiday itself. At Warda, I was reminded just how excellent the food of Lebanon really is and exactly why I loved it so much.
On the short drive home, I make plans with Pete to return with family and friends “and oh, so and so would adore it too, wouldn’t they?” So it won’t be long before we are back, giggling our way through the menu.
The location right next to Southgate tube station (on the Piccadilly line) makes it an easy trip for those in other parts of town. If you’re a fan of Lebanese, I recommend you make the journey!
Kavey Eats dined as guests of Warda restaurant.