Ooh Noura Brasserie. What can I say about it that won't send me into a narcoleptic fit of tedious finger drumming. It's big. It's bland. It's barely different from any other Lebanese restaurant you might have visited lately, except that instead of being fitted out in red plush Louis Farouk gilt chairs and the obligatory tiered marble water feature, it looks - well - much like any other new restaurant you might have visited lately. There have Armani griege marble stripes running round one wall, pillars, enough white tablecloths to enshroud The Netherlands and, em, blinds. I think. I'm checking my notes but all I can find is: 'can we leeve now?' written several times in block capitals by my eight year old daughter. My main impression was of a very smart parking garage, or a Park Lane car showroom with dining facilities. Certainly if there was a shiny silver Mercedes parked in the gleaming reception area it wouldn't have looked out of place. However, in that case, the staff might have had to work a little more enthusiastically to make a sale.
Lebanese food is home cooking to me. My husband came full of Eastern promise and then failed to keep it. Consequently, without the cook, driver and brace of shoe polishing flunkies I had hoped to become accustomed to, over the years I've had to wield the vegetable corer and stuff the courgettes myself. I've followed his Lebanese mother's faxed recipes with painstaking instructions to; 'fry the ma barif shu ismu b'il ingleezi (I don't know what it's called in English) until it looks done, and exhausted the various books of Claudia Rodin. Recently I discovered a mouth-watering book called Arabesque by Lebanese-Australian chef Greg Malouf. As a foreigner, I'm not a purist about Arabic food though that horrible F word - fusion - too often turns the offspring of a mixed marriage into a freak from the Island of Doctor Theroux. Refreshingly, this book offers traditional Middle Eastern cuisine with a modern Western influence, instead of another twenty things to do with an aubergine.
Until now, restaurants haven't managed to make the leap. Ozer tried modern Ottoman food and got lost in France, while the short-lived Levant also tried modern Middle Eastern dishes and just got lost. So we're left with the traditional mezza and grilled meat for which there is a warm place in my heart. Noura, already a thriving concern in Paris, claims to serve 'refined home made Lebanese cuisine' - but the food in their new restaurant in Victoria appears fairly average. If you're happy with lots of little dishes to start, a couple of pieces of skewered lamb and some Gallic-style service, then Noura is certainly your tante. Equally, you could go to Hamra in Mayfair, Fakhredine in Piccadilly, tens of simpler neighbourhood restaurants like Al Waha in Westbourne Grove, and Maroush just about everywhere. All offer you much the same thing, but better, and usually with a smile.
We had the Noura mezza of twelve starters, a selection of grilled lamb and chicken, followed by Arabic sweets. The waiter and I had an arithmetical disagreement over the exact quantity and consistency of the dishes on offer, after which he tried his best to avoid me. Silently, like cold broccoli. I also asked for two vegetable dishes - bamia (okra), and aubergine with chick peas, both served with rice. When the waiter came back with a query, he went straight to my husband though I'd done the ordering. Ask madame, said the well trained spouse. Poor soul, he wished the ground would open up and swallow him, which given the long wait between courses, was a distinct possibility.
Oh mummy, put the poor waiter down, said my elder daughter, wearily. The food was/italics/ agreeable, though unremarkably so. The tabbouli and fattoush - a bread salad with sumac, humous, baba ghanoush, and the sojok and makanek - two sorts of spicy sausages engaged in a fight to the death with garlic, were as good as they should have been. The savory pastries, particularly the cheese saboussik, inferior, . Everything else was y'ani or so-so and all the supposedly warm dishes arrived tepid. When I remarked on this, the receptionist told me; "but your husband should know that these are supposed/italics/ to be cold". Mmn cold rice - a real speciality, but without engaging in pointless pedantry, we let it pass. They wouldn't let me have a menu - 'they're for the customers', didn't fax it later as promised and it took three people to make up our bill, which was hardly splitting the atom. Then, finally, after repeated capitalised ransom notes from youngest daughter, we asked to take dessert home, it took so long to put it in a box you would have thought they were preparing it for a state funeral. We had karabeej halabi - really delicious wedges of pistachio shortbread with sticky merangue cream which everyone adored.
So, back to the kitchen where I can fold filo pastry three ways, and wrap anything in a grape leaf but I hadn't realised, until now, that I had such a spectacular knack for bending people out of shape.
What's worse is that it comes so naturally.