Monday, 10 September 2012
Restaurant: Al Arez
Location: Edgware Road
By Boeing: 2184 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.7 miles
My grandfather insisted on dining at 5 PM come hell or high water. In truth he was spared a silent, brooding fret if it was served at ten too. He also liked the plates to be baked longer and at a higher temperature than whatever comprised the main course. So what he would have made of me turning up for a Lebanese supper at 1:30 AM on a Wednesday morning I can only imagine. But two generations on and there was nothing unfamiliar. Indeed the Edgware Road had proved a happy Fork and Flag hunting ground with Burma, Egypt, Iraq and Iran all pinning their colours to its broad, tatty, Arabic inspired mast.
Mid-week and closer to dawn than dusk it was abuzz with abysmal driving, urgent chatter and groups of all ages gathered around shisha pipes. The cuisine de rigour on this most nocturnal of thoroughfares is Lebanese. Indeed there are in excess of 25 such restaurants in the mile or so between Marble Arch and the bridge over the Union Canal at Warwick Avenue, making it the most popular in West London.
Having had the pleasure of visiting Beirut, a city with more soul than a combined wake for the Supremes, I had a feel for what was authentic and was drawn to Al Arez, with its neon lights, Parisian style al fresco tables, the patriotic plastering of the Cedar tree across every bare wall and huge, sweating shanks of Sharma slowly rotating in the window.
Though it was Tardis like in its Levantine vastness there was not one table spare with families, couples and mobile phone accessory franchisees brimming with conversation. So I ensconced myself on an elevated stool by the open kitchen. It was noisy. Very noisy. Nosier than a crèche after a break for cherryade.
Conspicuous in my Englishness I was more of an interloper that was partially blocking a thoroughfare than a paying punter. After several minutes trying to catch the attention of a waitress I was rebuked with the question ‘So do you need a menu then?’. Charming.
I ordered Jallab, a sweet fruit juice made from dates and liberally sprinkled with pine nuts. Imagine drinking neat Ribena. Then imagine whisking in a jar of golden syrup and a Pecan Danish and you will approaching an idea of how sweet this dusky brown beverage is. Fruit juices, simmering tomato based stews and vibrant green salads that scampered past on the sinewy arms of petite waitresses on route to far flung tables was a reminder of what a verdant, blessed land Lebanon is: a country where you can bathe in 39 degree sunshine on the coast and after an hour and a half drive by skiing down cedar lined slopes.
While admiring large framed photographs of national landmarks such as the Baalbek temple I ordered what is surely one of the greatest starters on earth, Baba ganoush, a rich, flavoursome aubergine puree, which came served, much to my delight, with a quarter of a pound of shaved lamb shawarma. To accompany this I ordered a Halloumi Arez, a fine, baked flatbread, and an exquisitely seasoned Chicken Shish Taouk. It was a meal that showcased so many flavours I have enjoyed on the Fork and Flag journey, drawing influences from Mediterranean Europe and Asia Minor. It made Armenia much more amenable and gave a cultural curtsey to Cyprus. Beirut, that troubled city once known as the Paris of the East, stands proudly at a culinary crossroads.
For dessert I ordered a rosewater milk pudding that was deliciously delicate in its flavour and came served the crunch of pistachio crumbs. It cleansed the palate of the spice of the main course. But any such cleansing was short lived when I ordered a coffee. It was a solid masquerading as a liquid, so thick it would take three weeks to slide down the face of a polished fridge door. Its strength made the memory of Marmite taste like calorie free cream cheese. Not even Alcatraz could confine its pungent aroma that spread like a seismic miasma through the room.
Usually after a Fork and Flag the fug of the host’s food becomes almost like a dream you can’t authenticate as you step out into familiar English streets. But not here, not in Tyre-on-Thames. As I walked outside my eye turned towards an adjacent shop, still open even as the larks considered stirring, selling gaudy, bejewelled silverware. Opposite was an Arabic bank and a small man scooping chilli-butter sweet corn in polystyrene cups. And as if in perfectly timed tribute a black Hummer with strobe-light emitting rotating wheel hubs prevented a Night bus from collecting passengers from the stop with a casual application of hazard lights. Lebanon where the nights go on and on and on.