When Levant first opened about eighteen months ago, it was dressed as an underground car park and touting itself as the hot new, happening venue offering trendy ŌmodernÕ Middle Eastern food. Some dishes worked, others were queerer than a three-penny watch, and just as edible. In places like these you always hope the chef has some knowledge of his specialist subject before he starts improvising Š or you end up with things like with modern jazz, but anyway, the modern kick didnÕt last long and in January this year the restaurant was relaunched with a more traditional Lebanese style menu and a sous chef from Maroush, the king of all Lebanese restaurants. The room was also refurbished. Gone is the gloomy minimalism that made you feel you should be reversing into your seat, then locking your handbag to the seat leg with an immobiliser, and - lo! Shag Palace was born, complete with secluded banquettes strewn with velvet cushions, where toute la monde arabe recline smoking the nerquile, or hubbly bubbly pipe (available in Opal Fruit flavours for £11.75). Add a couple of dancing houris, a eunuch or two and youÕre only a palm tree short of a Turkish Delight ad. I particularly like the scarlet walled, private room at the back of the restaurant with its candles and glittery, glass beaded curtains. Actually, it looks like my bedroom in which the Mr is becoming increasingly uncomfortable, decorated as it is in fur fetish, harlotÕs boudoir meets Prada shoe department.
LevantÕs menu contains the usual things Š lots of little mezze dishes, of which the Batata Harrah (spicey potatoes) and Qasbet Djej (chicken livers with lemon and garlic) were particularly good on a previous visit. For the main course there is more grilled meat that you can point a skewer at, with several dishes not always found in Middle East restaurants and more usually eaten at home. Fattet batenjan, for instance, can be a delicious, layered garlicky dish of fried aubergines, toasted bread and yoghurt, while Mudardarah, is an onomatopoeically flatulent, but fabulously simple dish of lentils and rice with well-browned onions. They also have samak sayadieh Š fried cod with yet more onions, which most other restaurants only do on Fridays. But donÕt go getting carried away thinking youÕre in for a treat Chez Sultana. The fattet I had on a previous visit was full of huge oily chunks of soggy aubergine, death by garlic nasty, and nothing like mama makes.
On this visit our particularly charmless waiter wouldnÕt let us sit down in the bar because all the tables, though by no means all the stools, were taken. And though you know I like to keep my camouflage long-line cardigan on, I draw the line at wearing the three dead animals in my Nicole Farhi floor-length sheepskin coat all through dinner. ŌWouldnÕt you like to hang my coat up?Õ I begged, perspiring like Ghengis Khan inside a centrally heated yurt. Well, do you want me to? He replied, shrugging.
We had some satisfyingly assertive spicy Armenian sausages, which are not for the faint hearted or those of you afraid of grease. The hummus contained too much tahini, and the warak enab (stuffed vine leaves) had a bad case of brewerÕs droop without even enough grace to be embarrassed about it. My companion had an excellent mixed grill of both ground and cubed lamb and chicken marinated in lemon and garlic (he was late home and IÕll bet the garlic earned him a particularly warm welcome from his wife). I had a swordfish brochette - not Middle Eastern, but Š enough with the ethnic food by this point. My friend objected to the affectedness of the relatively stingy, bowl of salad vegetables which are served in every Middle Eastern restaurant and which you are supposed to cut up and share ceremoniously. But thatÕs like saying that chopsticks, or miso soup, or poppadums are affected, and anyway, if weÕre talking affected Š take a look around you sweetie.
There are desserts on offer, for instance, almond stuffed dates and Turkish coffee brulee, but we settled for mint tea, pre-sweetened and poured ceremoniously in a long stream from a teapot held aloft at great height by whichever member of staff we had managed to flag down and served with baklava, pistachios and Turkish delight on a three-tiered silver tray. Service was as attentive as being a non-urgent case in the casualty ward of a NHS hospital on a Saturday night. Except here they donÕt post up signs saying Ōyour order for wine will be taken in 8 hoursÕ. The bar, however, is definitely worth a visit.
And everything Š food, wine, tea, nuts and soft-porn soft furnishings Š also comes with a loud helping of Arabic music Š the remix, techno beat - with lots of constipated wailing and rhythmic drumming, which I have to admit, conversation not withstanding, I rather like. Did I ever tell you I once had belly-dancing lessons? Aha - well then Š now you know. . .