It's always nice when friends who are very far away somehow manage to visit, and it's even more flattering when they're fresh off the plane and you're effectively their second stop after they've dumped their bags at their rented studio. Of course, the main reason C swung by was to use my printer, but I also like to believe that a visit to my place was high up on her list of priorities at least partially because of our deep and abiding friendship. In anticipation of her arrival, I'd planned for us to have dinner at the original Yalla Yalla outlet in Soho, which if not entirely halal, was still pork-free. It turned out she'd had shawarma for lunch, but Lebanese cuisine is thankfully varied enough that we could still go. (My backup choice had been Simply Chicken just down the street, which I will save for our next outing.)
When we arrived just past seven on a Sunday evening, the place was already packed, and they'd just seated the girl in front of us so we were given an estimated fifteen minute wait. The day had been lovely, but the wind had begun to pick up after the sun set, so we were content to park ourselves on the window ledge. The both of us are rather small creatures, so we just about managed to fit. Everyone else behind us weren't quite as lucky, and had to stand out in the cold. At its worst, the queue was 12 people deep. It doesn't seem like much, but considering the restaurant can seat just over 20 people at a go, it guaranteed they were out there for a while. As their rather tongue-in-cheek slogan puts it, you can "EAT WITH US OR TAKE TO THE STREETS", but the Beirut Street Food served is rather more enjoyable eaten fresh in the restaurant, so people were happy to stay in line.
Eventually, the couple making cow eyes at each other while sharing a single baklava finally deigned to leave, and C & I took their place. By this point we'd read the menu backwards and forwards and could possibly have pointed out what we wanted, even if we still couldn't exactly pronounce the words. We tried a couple of times, and it was so painful for everyone involved so we quickly gave up and stuck with the English descriptions instead. It was sad, but when they taught us Arabic in school it was a rather haphazard and pathetic affair far too early on alternate Monday mornings. I still can't pronounce anything properly and the only word I can remember is khamsa, which means five and isn't the most useful.
The first dish that arrived was the Baba Ghannouj - puréed charcoal grilled aubergines with tahini (Sesame paste) that came with a mound of pomegranate and parsley in the middle and a basket of complimentary warm pitta bread. I love Baba Ghannouj. After that winter I went to the UAE, Bahrain then Egypt shortly after, I collected a whole bunch of Middle Eastern recipes, convinced that I was going to be cooking up feasts when I finally went off to university. Two years in a room with no oven and year on year after that of housemates who hate aubergine later, my home-made Baba Ghannouj dreams still haven't materialized, so I make do by having it outside.
As we demolished the Baba Ghannouj, the Kibbe Lahme was served. Apparently the deep fried lamb and cracked wheat parcels are considered by some to be Lebanon's national dish. This tear drop shaped iteration was also filled with onion and roasted pine nuts, which lent an interesting texture. I thought it seemed a little dry on its own, but C had no such qualms, and polished two off with great gusto.
There had been a severe dearth of cooked cheese in my life, so I ordered the Manaee'sh Cheese, a baked flat pastry with Halloumi cheese and sprinkled with a dash of sesame seeds. I had to eat all the tomatoes because C finds their straddling of the fruit-vegetable divide distasteful, but that was no hardship. I have penned odes to cooked cheese too terrible to see the light of day, and this too inspired bits of awful poetry in my mind. Ploughing through these three dishes, we started to flag, no matter that we'd been starving when we walked through the door. Everything on the menu is deceptively filling, which makes it even more value for money considering that they're pretty delicious as well.
Thus, by the time the Sawda Djej arrived, there wasn't much room in our bellies for more than four or fives bites each. It didn't matter that in 2012 Time Out had named it one of the 100 best dishes in London, of the chicken liver cooked with garlic and pomegranate molasses, the only thing we could finish was the garlic, because obviously vegetables don't take up stomach space. I burnt my tongue on the first few pieces of liver I ate, but the happy medium came and went too quickly and soon the pieces got a little cold. That didn't matter so much though, because if we'd had another bite we probably would have exploded. We ended up bagging what we couldn't finish, and taking a stroll through and increasingly rowdy Soho in the brisk London air to jump-start the food settling process. It had been a successful Welcome To London! dinner.