I'd been meaning to check out Cafe Libanais for a while. Located in the Middle Eastern-dense area of Marylebone, it is brighter and more contemporary than the generally traditional shisha bars and kebab restaurants of the area.
I first started to drop in on Cafe Libanais as a cheap source of orange blossom and rose water- paying about £1.50 for a glass bottle of each. Being an artist and easily swayed by the aesthetic, I was instantly drawn to its bright, graphic decor; the chequered tables, red plastic furniture and cardboard giant grinning pop-art faces. I loved the interior correlating to the website design and the stacks of dusted Turkish Delight and sticky baklava behind the glass counters- I was flustered by the little individual cubes of nougat piled high at 30p a pop by the till. I was won over, instant sold to the shiny well marketed design.
So I made a date to pop in to try it out properly. I admit I felt twinges of guilt en route as I scurried past Conaught street and the surrounding area, passing numerous outlets of the sprawling Maroush Empire, Al Waha, with its glowing reputation and loyal following and the humble locals like Fatoush.
Every time I go, I am excited by the decor- the casual, contemporary and ultimately art-y glamour of the place. I have heard tales of their rose water macaroons and mint teas, lemonade made with pomegranate and orange blossom- rumours of a menu that is modern, creative, bite sized and fun. The day I wriggle onto one of the little plastic chairs and study the beautifully bright menu is a hot one, and light and sweet is exactly what I'm looking for.
There is mild disappointment when the waiter informed me they didn't have the flat bread I had ordered (moments earlier we had joked; what kind of a Middle Eastern restaurant would run out of flat bread..? Oh.) I'm pretty sure that we were also served lemonade, instead of lemonade with orange blossom and pomegranate. It was sweet and sharp and good- but the orange blossom would have made it all the better.
Having to rearrange our order after the flat bread problem, we went for a classic mix- hummus and pitta bread, and falafel, served with salad, jalapenos and tortilla.
The food arrived- the lemonade in appealingly chunky glasses, the falafel in a brown terracotta plate, all looking abundant and edible. The pitta was soft and thick and warm, the hummus generous. I couldn't claim it was hands down the-best-hummus I'd tasted (I have a penchant for the ones flavoured with roasted pepper or cumin, or topped with pine nuts) but it was enjoyable, glossy with olive oil and garnished with chickpeas and flat leafed herbs.
The falafel was also good. Large, crispy shelled and soft inside, served with a tatziki. Not at all greasy, not quite moist, but not too dry.
We finished it off with an espresso to go, carried away in a teeny card espresso cup and a beautifully designed (I wouldn't expect anything less) paper bag of orange blossom water.
Looking back, the food was certainlygood enough, an enjoyable but slightly expensive lunch time stop. I can't help but feel I was mostly paying for the experience though- the decor and the ambiance, and the cute little touches; rose water sweets on funky menus and individually wrapped nougat.
This is not the place to go for an authentic Middle Eastern experience- if you are looking for that, then look for the swarthy men huddled round shisha pipes outside dark mosaic-ed bars on Conought Street. Literally follow your nose. You will find cheaper, and you will find tastier.
But you won't find Arabic-chic meets pop-art graphics and textile bags or tin gifts. You probably won't find decor that will give you a headache and beautifully considered menus. This isn't the place to reminisce over your summer spent in Beirut- but it is the place to catch up with friends, over a few cubes of nougat (The cafes more affordable offering, at least...) and a mint tea.
Cafe Libanais- 80% pretty face... And unashamedly so.
Cafe Libanais, 65 Wigmore Street, London, W1U 1PZ