Restaurant review

Lebnani, Reigate: “Small but perfectly judged” – restaurant review | Food

Lebnani, 11 Church Street, Reigate RH2 0AA (07495 528919). Mass £5.95 to £6.95, larger dishes £9.50 to £17.50, desserts £5, wines from £24.95

With the wrong places, the time never comes, even if you wish it were otherwise. Perhaps you make allowances for the clumsy service, or the overdone decor, or the overly harsh menu splashed with sly adjectives – Sumptuous! Delectable! Tasty! – that leave you mumbling, “I’ll be the judge of this.” You agree to all of this in the hope that something you ordered will arrive and you will take a look at it and know, by the way you know your own name, that everything will be fine. With the wrong places, this dish never happens.

With great places, the time always comes early. At Lebnani in Reigate, the first reassuring sign comes very early: a glass bowl of small black and green olives with an intense taste, delivered to the table with the water. It is as if their compactness had concentrated their very brackish essence in the taut and shiny skin. They are tossed with salted and chopped candied lemons and speckled with the red of the diced peppers. We compulsively pound them, sometimes with cocktail sticks, sometimes with our fingers until their tips are glistening with oils. We soothe the slightly bitter edge with shots of their own lemonade, flavored with apple and ginger, or pomegranate and orange blossom.

“It’s a beauty”: fattouche from Beirut. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Then comes the fattouche from Beirut and we know, at the slightest glance, that we have really found the way to the right table. It’s a beauty. Thin curls of fried flatbread are golden and lightly oiled, and dusted with the dark purple of sumac. Some of that citrus promise found its way into the bright green of the leaves and the cucumber underneath. Brilliant, vivid gems and pomegranate rubies complete the picture. You know it’s going to be fabulous to eat, long before you even earnestly raise your fork, and it’s: crisp and fresh, shiny and tangy. It is the food that makes you feel like you are engaged in a deep self-care exercise. It’s “me time” in a succession of beautifully dressed plates.

The executive chef and owner of Lebnani is Beirut-born Jad Youssef, who in 2008 created what has become the small Yalla Yalla group of Lebanese restaurants in central London before selling. For a time, he ran the kitchen of the far fancier, now closed, Fakhreldine, then joined a similar restaurant in Hong Kong as executive chef. Now it’s also here in the Surrey suburban belt, with a meze menu at around £6 a plate and larger dishes in the mid-teens. From Tuesday to Friday they make you a wrap with salad, hummus and pickles for £11.95. Apparently, Youssef divides his time between the two restaurants which, given the 5,989 miles between them – thank you kind Mr. Google for that precise figure – seems like a challenge. In truth, it sounds like a recipe for phoning him up.

“A perfect bite”: stuffed vine leaves.
“A perfect bite”: stuffed vine leaves. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Obviously, however, he knows how to run a restaurant and transmit recipes from afar. Or maybe we should just give full credit to the people who cook and serve the food here on a daily basis. Lebnani is a perfectly judged and perfectly run small restaurant, with its pretty white and blue half-tiled floor and its turquoise padded benches and its open kitchen that smells good of good charcoal grills.

Nothing about the proposal will come as a surprise to anyone who considers themselves reasonably well-versed in the Eastern Mediterranean classical repertoire. Versions of these dishes can be found throughout the Middle East. Here is the offer of falafel and hummus, tabbouleh and shish kebabs. But at Lebnani, it comes with a particularly light and fresh touch. Bring in the squirts of lemon juice and drops of dark green olive oil and finely chopped fresh herbs. Bring the sun.

'A rich bronzed sheen': chicken shish.
‘A rich bronzed sheen’: chicken shish. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

It reminds me how much I love Lebanese food. The well-wrapped little rice-stuffed vine leaves, topped with a diced tomato, are each a perfect bite. There’s a particularly light, almost frothy, smoky eggplant puree from the grill, the flavor enhanced by the generous addition of garlic and tahini. The well in the middle is filled with this olive oil, dancing with the green of the chopped chives. The hummus here is extremely creamy: it settles on the fluffy pillows of the flatbread like the best whipped garlic butter. For an extra £1.50 they add a small heap of their mild and tender beef shawarma, hit with the baharat seasoning it was marinated in overnight, a drizzle of nutmeg and cumin, paprika and cloves and more.

We have two charcoal grills. There are chunks of chicken shish, the lemon-marinated breast, and a paste of red peppers, to give the charred meat a rich bronzed sheen. On the side is a jar of their toum, the brilliant whipped white garlic sauce. Then there’s the spicy ground lamb shoulder kebab, seasoned with allspice, with its side dish of tahini sauce to help it on its way. Both come on the same bed of crisp, vermicelli-covered rice, that Lebanese miracle of rice cooking in which each grain of butter simply hangs together rather than starchily clinging to the next for security. There are roasted peppers and sumac-marinated tomatoes, and a red onion salad.

'Soothing': muhalabia.
‘Soothing’: muhalabia. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The only thing they don’t do here is baklava. It’s a great example, but pay more attention to the muhalabia, a soothing milk pudding topped with crushed pistachios and sweetened with a light touch of rosewater syrup. Bar a prosecco, the entire wine list comes from the big houses in the Beqaa Valley and Mount Lebanon, and includes affordable offerings from the venerable Musar Castle. Next door is a branch of Café Rouge, which seems to be doing better business this lunchtime. It’s not best price; indeed, if anything, you’ll get a smaller bill at Lebnani. Of course, I accept that some people prefer fake French to Lebanese fucking. I know people make those choices. The problem is that I don’t understand why.

News

The much-admired Hyssop in the Derbyshire town of Glossop has launched crowdfunding to keep his business going after a fire tore through the building. The fire tore through the top floor and they are now working on a way to trade and pay their employees and suppliers while the rebuilding begins. To donate go here.

A legal row has erupted in London’s small Mexican restaurant business. As first reported by the london eater website, taqueriawhich has outlets in Notting Hill and Exmouth Market, has filed a cease-and-desist order against Sonora Taqueria, a street food stall in Hackney, claiming they have trademark protection over the word “taqueria”. Representatives from Sonora pointed out that the Mexican term “taqueria” is analogous to the word “pizzeria” which, being generic, cannot be monopolized. The case is reminiscent of that of the Vietnamese retail chain Pho which, in 2013, claimed the rights to the name of the Vietnamese national dish. Regardless of the strength of the legal case, Pho ultimately backed down in the face of consumer outrage.

Finally, farewell to the great Alain Lhermitte who owned the delightful Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden in London for half a century until it was sold at the start of the year, and whose death has been announced. Lhermitte, who was 80, came to Britain in his twenties with aspirations of becoming a racing driver but fell into the catering business. He joined Mon Plaisir, becoming maître d’hôtel, before buying it from the Viala family in 1972. Around this time, he transformed the impeccably Gallic restaurant from a room gloriously stuffed with bric-a-brac to four .

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1