The most recent newcomer to have opened in Queen Street is Lebanese cuisine specialists Comptoir Libanais.
The recent £12 million redevelopment of the old Guildhall Shopping area into a stylish restaurant quarter has seen the likes of Turtle Bay, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Absurd Bird – and if Carribean or generous portions of American comfort food is not your cup of tea – Comptoir Libanais offers healthier mezes designed for messy sharing. I’m particularly happy that such a restaurant has been opened in Exeter; it accommodates many dietary requirements – the vegan, halloumi lover and the avid meat eater won’t be disappointed. I imagine it will become a perfect dining hotspot for hosting student birthday celebrations.
I was over the moon to be invited for a press review to the latest restaurant to open in Queen street. It had been running for two weeks when I arrived, since the 1st October, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the service was coping with its successful demand – every time I’d nipped in to check out the beautiful gifts for sale, the restaurant was bustling and the queue for tables backed through the door and into the street.
Let’s get the awkward part over with and talk about the review allowance. The press pass granted me a meal for two, which included: 1 mezze to share, 2 mains, 2 deserts and 1 bottle of wine/a cocktail each/2 beers each. Okay. So we’re not going to go home hungry – the meze sharing platters could easily suffice as a main between two guests – but as a student eagerly awaiting a January student loan instalment, I’m not one to complain about free food.
We shared a gorgeous showstopper Mezze Platter to start. The generous Middle Eastern spread boasted baba ghanuj, hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, lentil salad, halloumi, alien-coloured pickles and pitta bread. The smokey baba ghanuj topped with pomegranate seeds and drizzled with oil was the clear winner on this plate; sometimes the aubergine can be bitter in baba ghanuj if its over done or not perfectly ripe, but I could eat this version by the shovelful. In my opinion, the halloumi was disappointing for a cuisine famous for this beautiful cheese; it was cold and a little stiff and you could tell that it had been sitting around for awhile. Comptoir Libanais clearly assemble their platters by demand, after having the components cooked and waiting around since opening – luckily this does not affect the delicious and fresh-tasting tabbouleh and lentil salad.
For main I ordered an aubergine tagine which came in a rich tomato and chickpea sauce garnished with a mint yoghurt dip, and served with heaps of couscous. The overall flavour of the dish was tasty, however the aubergine could have been a more of a substantial feature because it had largely disintegrated leaving behind a tomato and chickpea sauce. My reviewee date ordered a “Chef special” halloumi tortilla, which was not truly that special. It was served cold, the halloumi was no where to be seen, and the salad was insubstantial.
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Then the meal was revived by a trio of deserts. We had a plateful of baklava, halva and roasted pistachio ice cream, and mouhalabia. I absolutely adored the mouhalabia – which is a traditional Lebanese milk pudding flavoured with rose syrup and topped with toasted pistachios. It’s a little like a Middle Eastern, vegetarian version of the panna cotta, which is brought alive by rose water. From what I sampled of the cocktail menu, it seems the restaurant have mastered some amazing flavours. I had the Roomana vodka sour, featuring pomegranate juice, vodka, lemon juice and rose syrup. It was all but too easy to drink, and its smoothness wasn’t ruined by the substantial amount of vodka.
Now you Devonshire foodies shouldn’t be fooled – the menu and interior assumes an air of authentic dining experience, but it is sadly another chain addition to Queen Street. Comptoir Libanais has thirteen restaurants currently open, majorly in London, and has plans to expand across the country, particularly the South West. I would go back again, but I hope its current popularity in Exeter will draw attention to the hidden Middle Eastern gems. The New Horizon on Longbrook street may not have the glamorous exterior of Comptoir Libanais, but the dishes the singular owner creates taste sensational. Furthermore, The Dinosaur café’s mezzes and more could take a chain like Comptoir Libanais from under the carpet if only it had more recognition than a family run business.