Comptoir Libanais is to Lebanese food what Pizza Express is to Pizza. There are better examples of both kinds of cuisine and there are worse. As brands they steer a middle course, which does not usually surprise, but neither does it usually disappoint. However, the Spinningfields branch of the Comptoir did surprise, and in a good way.
There are certain kinds of dishes that most people, with a little training and the right equipment, can cook on an industrial scale. Pizza is one of them, burgers are another. But if you want to deliver a wider range of dishes you need proper chefs, and it’s difficult to maintain standards over more than a small number of venues. Lebanese restaurants generally offer all manner of earthly delight and are consequently difficult to clone, but the Comptoir’s menu is quite short, which is a good sign.
At lunchtime there is a set lunch and the blackboard special – Lebanese Flavours of the Month – so we had three courses from each. The falafel from the set lunch was fresh, nutty, and light, which is all you require in a falafel but so seldom what you get. The goats’ cheese and cherry tomato from the specials wasn’t very special at all; some balls of goats’ cheese sprinkled with zatar and cherry tomatoes that may have been shown the grill. The Toufaha, on the other hand, a homemade apple, ginger and mint lemonade, was zingy, appley and particularly good, and probably even better if you follow their suggestion and add vodka.
Koftas next, which can be dry, but these sausages of minced lamb were generously sized, juicy and well spiced, and came with rice and a fresh salad. I keep using the word ‘fresh’, but I’ve eaten so many salads in other places that had clearly been hanging around for a few hours that a fresh one is a surprise, and the freshness of the food is a mark of Comptoir’s success. The main from the specials board, Roasted Harissa Aubergine and Cumin Cauliflower, turned up looking like half an avocado and some tomatoes, but that was just the topping. We disappeared it with alacrity.
The puddings were fine. In fact, the chocolate cheese cake from the special menu was better than fine, being more chocolatey than cheesey, and the orange blossom mouhalabia, a sort of milk pudding, was fine, but I’m spoilt because there is another place, in Chorlton, that has this absolutely nailed. Chorlton also has the best paklava I have ever eaten, and I’ve been eating it ever since I went out with a Polish girl in 1966 and her mother thought I needed fattening up. Comptoir’s paklava is OK.
The Lebanese white wine was dry but not too dry, the coffee was decent and the service was efficient, helpful and charming. And, as we know, the welcome is all. We’d definitely come again, especially if we were taking a veggie out, so next time you’re in Spinningfields feeling hungry, do try this surprisingly good chain.