Cedars Lebanese

October 2, 2015

I had a very enjoyable meal at Cedars Lebanese Restaurant on Churchgate recently – here’s my review of it for the Leicester Mercury:

One in four of the population of Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. If the UK had received the same proportion, there would be 16 million.

I bring this up because somehow it seems to chime with the philosophy of Lebanese hospitality explained in the preamble to Cedars‘ menu. This tradition, it explains, stems from when the Levant developed as meeting place for European and Asian trade routes. “As Lebanese, we offer our guests the best food and comfort that we can afford…which generally consists of a variety of dishes and can always be produced at extremely short notice.”

The reference of course is to mezze, the variety of small dishes to be consumed in leisurely fashion over conversation that is familiar throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a familiar approach at the burgeoning number of Turkish restaurants around Leicester. Can I give you chapter and verse on how precisely Lebanese mezze differs from the Anatolian style? To be honest, no.

But what I can say is that the mezze at Cedars stands up well to similar offerings around the city. In fact I’d say there’s a wider range of flavours on offer here and they pack a bigger punch. A lunchtime visit for the mixed mezze platter for £7.50 featured some excellent food with a pleasing variety of textures and flavours. Should you be on your own, this is definitely the way to sample the range on offer. It features eight items from smooth, nutty hummus drizzled with good quality olive oil through to savoury filled pastries such as sambousek, stuffed with delicous minced lamb given a sweetish edge with a hint of cinnamon and fattayer, an oven-baked filo pastry with sharp minerally spinach, onion, lemon juice and pine nuts.

More sweetly spiced lamb was contained in kebbeh, a little parcel wrapped in bulgur wheat and deep-fried, and there was more sharpness from the parsley, onion and tomato salad tabouleh and from vine leaf rolls filled with rice and herbs with lemon juice. Probably the only element I didn’t really warm to was the moutabel, grilled aubergine puréed with sesame paste, lemon juice and garlic. Despite a sprinkling of sumac this was a bit bland and I wasn’t keen on the “scrambled egg” texture.

On a quiet lunchtime the relentless Europop was a bit of an irritant and the staff were busy rearranging the back part of the restaurant rather than paying much attention to me, but the food definitely warranted a follow up.

Our self-selected mezze at an evening visit was even more impressive. Superbly grilled chicken wings came with French-influenced aioli – a powerful paste of whipped-up garlic and olive oil. We also loved the foul medames, tender broad beans and chickpeas with lemon juice and garlic, and the feisty sujuk, densely meaty little sausages in a mild chilli and tomato sauce.

We shared one main course too, a mountainous mixed sharwama, with piles of spiced, sliced and roasted lamb and chicken along with rice, salad, pickles and flatbread. The spicing dominated the flavour of the lamb somewhat but this was all good flavoursome stuff.

Unlike the majority of the new breed of Turkish restaurant, Cedars is licensed and has a fairly extensive Lebanese wine list, including the divine Chateau Musar. On this occasion we limited ourselves to a Lebanese pilsener, a mite sweet to my taste but good to try. We wrapped things up with refreshing mint tea and some nutty pastries.

I would imagine Churchgate must have it challenges when running a restaurant but Cedars has survived a good few years now. I can see why and it deserves to be far busier than it was on our visits.

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Chateau Musar tasting dinner

September 23, 2014

It’s been quite a week, culminating in the utter euphoria of the King Power stadium on Sunday. But man can not live by 5-3 wins alone, great food and wine is also pretty vital, and fortunately I had some of that too.

The Chateau Musar tasting dinner at Maiyango kicked off with canapés including crunchy kohl-rabi bhajis and smoked salmon mousseline, with a glass of Musar’s dry and elegant Rosé Jeune made from 100 per cent cinsault. Then Ralph Hochar, grandson of Musar’s founder Gaston, gave us a comprehensive introduction to the history of wine-making in the Lebanon and the foundation of this remarkable vineyard in the Bekaa valley.

Ralph Hochar

Ralph Hochar

It’s an inspiring and fascinating tale, even if he was a bit, erm, thorough for some of those keenly waiting to taste the fruits of his labour and to see how well they matched chef Nick Wilson’s menu. We were to try four vintages of Musar’s trademark red, starting with the 2007 matched to a beautifully spiced rabbit pastilla with a carrot and burnt orange purée. This is the most recently released vintage (the 2006 is not yet ready to be released, we learnt, as harvesting and winemaking were done in less than ideal circumstances due to a little local difficulty with the Israeli army). It was great – rich and spicy though not excessively so, and was in total harmony with the dish. The 2003 was surprisingly different, lighter and more delicate and another great match for our wild sea bass with char-grilled asparagus and a spiced bouillabaisse.

IMG_1246With a main of Lebanese spiced rump of local organic lamb with a smoky aubergine purée,  we had two vintages to compare – the 1999 with its tobacco and leather notes and the awesome 1995. Apparently 10 years ago the tannins in this were harsh, but now it’s just a superb complex wine, still with plenty of fruit but hinting at darker flavours too.

There was a superb dessert of a gooey chocolate marquise with tobacco ice-cream (needs an open mind but seriously enjoyable) and a mouth-tingling salted cocoa nib tuile. The balance of salt, sweet and bitter with a dangerous flavour such as tobacco confirms a serious intelligence at work in the kitchen here.IMG_1248

I didn’t much care for the two whites we tried with cheeses but they seemed to have their fans in the room. Ralph Hochar accepted they were “more difficult for people to understand”. He was utterly charming, but I think that was me told. We finished up with a glass of Musar’s arak,  anise-flavoured spirit distilled from local obaideh grapes and clocking in at a feisty 53%,  but surprisingly clean and smooth. A fine digestif.

What I took away was a sense of just how varied the vintages of a great wine can be and a huge respect for the people who have built this business in such extraordinary circumstances.  This was a great opportunity for fine food and wine matching.

* Oh and if you think this is all a bit fancy and pretentious, here’s a more humble Middle Eastern recommendation – Falafel Land on Gallowtree Gate. From this tiny little hutch on the edge of what looks a hideous buffet barn, I had today freshly-made crunchy, nutty Syrian falafel in flatbread, with salad and pickles – £2.50. Delicious.

Look, it's my blog and I decide what pictures go in Ok?

Look, it’s my blog and I decide what pictures go in, ok?

Cedars

March 31, 2010

cedars mezeI went to Cedars not long after it opened a couple of years back in the, well, lively, location of Churchgate in Leicester. It was a pleasure  to welcome a Lebenese restaurant to the city but I found it a bit hit and miss – some of it very pleasant, some of it just not to my taste, in particular a preponderance of sharp, vinegary flavours. Service and presentation also misfired at times suggesting it hadn’t really settled down yet.

But the restuarant has survived, and I was pleased to get a chance to revisit last weekend, though it’s perhaps unfair to judge a restaurant by how it performs when feeding a set menu to 30 hungry people celebrating a birthday early on a Sunday evening.  With that in mind, I’ll say straight up that while the food we had wasn’t  outstanding, it was certainly consistently good and in the main gave the impression of being cooked with care and presented with pride.

We were provided with a wide variety of hot and cold meze to start. Kibiss pickles are too sharp for me, but pretty much everything else went down well – neatly trimmed chicken wings were nicely grilled and served with some delicious aioli, hummus was fine, the lamb sambousek (little pastry parcels) were tasty though the pastry could have been lighter. The  stuffed vines leaves were  good,  the falafel very good, while the tabouleh was full of very fresh parsely and a zingy dressing.  

Vegetarian mains were basically variations of veg stews with rice  and opinions seemed to vary from ok to very good. Carnivores were able to get stuck in to a variety of marinated grilled lamb and chicken with fries.  The Lebenese  house red was very quaffable , while service was swift and helpful. All in all, they did a very job for us, and I am more inclined to revisit now on a calmer evening (which means probably not one of their regular belly dancing evenings) to see what they can do. Haut cuisine it ain’t, but possibly more importantly it does seem a likeable place offering honest, robust Eastern Mediterranean food.

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