Friday, 26 August 2011

Finding the Middle East in the middle of Imperial Wharf

Rich yet zesty Foul Moudamas

Having lived near Imperial Wharf for a year now, I'm ashamed to say that although I visit daily to use the Overground, and occasionally pop into the Waterside for a spritzer with river views, I have never eaten at the plethora of restaurants that have popped up there, despite living less than a 5 minute walk away.

Since a girls' trip to Sharm El Sheikh, where just about the only sophisticated thing we did was eat at a really great Lebanese restaurant, I have been promising myself a visit to Yamal Alsham, a Syrian and Lebanese restaurant housed in the smart Imperial Wharf development, and which has the double benefit of offering half price meals to Tastecard holders. Not being able to get all four of the Egypt culprits together, and since my boyfriend has got to be the world's biggest kebab aficionado, I jumped at the chance to get him to raise the bar a little on the Middle Eastern fare, whilst simultaneously trying out a restaurant I'd had my eye on for so long.

3am kebab stop this ain't

So let's get things straight from the start. There are no 5am style kebabs at Yamal Alsham. Although they do offer a selection of superior sounding 'sandwiches', including the infamous Shawarma, this is a pretty upmarket establishment catering to a fairly upmarket clientele (those flats are expensive!), who know their stuff when it comes to Lebanese. When we visited we were surrounded by several parties of native Lebanese diners who were tucking into their food with gusto - that's always a good sign!

Hoummos beiruty and Bemieh bil zeit

Steering clear of the 'sandwiches', the boy and I were really impressed with the diversity of the menu. There is a large selection of drool-inducing hot and cold mezzé, as well as salads, fish specialities, grilled meats and more traditional main-courses. I'm no expert in Middle Eastern cuisine, and I feel compelled to mention how helpful the restaurant manager was when we were making our selections. She gave a pretty spot-on indication of the spice-level within each dish, and judging our level of familiarity against a series of the more common-place dishes she made some really great recommendations in terms of 'Lebanese and Syrian food - for beginners'. She also recommended a really great bottle of Lebanese red wine, from the Chateau Kefraya vineyards in the Bekaa Valley. We'd never thought of trying Middle Eastern wine before, and we found it full and well balanced, and very enjoyable.

With eyes slightly bigger than our stomachs, admittedly, we set on four mezzé to start, two cold and two hot.
The Hoummos Beiruty, infused with hot peppers, was rich and creamy, and ever so slightly warming. We also had the Bemieh bil zeit (Okra cooked in garlic, onions and tomato sauce) which was hearty yet refreshing. Of our starters the Makanek - pan fried Lebanese lamb and cumin sausages - were the stand out dish. Almost akin to a spicy Middle Eastern chorizo, this arrived sizzling at our table and were perfectly spiced and burst with rich flavour. An old favourite from Egypt, we also ordered Foul Moudamas, which are boiled broad beans seasoned with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. The flavours and textures work well together; at once light and zesty, rich and satisfying.

Makanek - the stand out dish of the evening

After a pretty rich selection of starters we barely had room for the mains! However, the boy made a very impressive dent in his Kafta Khoshkhash, minced lamb with parsley in a spicy tomato and onion sauce, whilst I regretfully report that I could barely eat a quarter of my Kibeh Bilsaynieh (Baked minced lamb and cracked wheat parcels layers filled with seasoned minced lamb and pine kernels, served with yoghurt dip). This was quite an unusual dish which, to be fair, the Maitre D had warned me most uninitiated people don't really enjoy. It is very dry but served with a refreshing yoghurt dip to add moisture. I didn't have a problem with the taste, so I'm sure I would have eaten a lot more of it if I hadn't been so full, but it wasn't my favourite thing ever. I'm now kicking myself that I didn't take the manager's advice and order the lamb stuffed aubergine I had my eye on, but never mind - all in the name of trying something new! The manager helpfully sent us away with a doggy bag and I certainly enjoyed my Kibeh more on an empty stomach the next day!

In a bid to revive ourselves we rounded things off with a Green Tea and an Expresso. It was a lovely surprise when a selection of Baklava were also presented at the end of the meal, and once again my theory that we humans possess a separate stomach when it comes to desserts was vindicated when we managed to polish them all off.

My final verdict? We will definitely visit again, but starve ourselves all day beforehand. The food is really well made and the selection is massive. The front of house staff were wonderful and the Manageress could not have been more helpful or accommodating. On a nicer day they also have outdoor seating and a selection of Shisha pipes, so this is a definite full evening affair. Once I can get the Egypt rabble together again, I'll be taking them back too!

Yamal Alsham on Urbanspoon

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