By common consent, Fakhreldine is the best Lebanese restaurant in London, which, let's face it, isn't saying very much. It's a little like describing Boscombe Road as the smartest street in Shepherd's Bush or the Octavia RS as the fastest production car Skoda has ever built. The Lebanon, after all, isn't known for its great culinary tradition. Indeed, I'm not sure I could distinguish Lebanese food from any other Middle Eastern cuisine. It all tastes the same, doesn't it? Humus and flatbread anyone?
Fakhreldine, though, is supposed to be different. It used to offer fairly standard Middle Eastern fare, but that all changed last year when the owner, Adib Ayache, passed on the reins to his son, Omar. Rather confusingly, Omar decided to partner up with another young man called Omar--when it comes to naming their sons, the Arabs are no more creative than they are in the kitchen--and the two of them set about dragging this Piccadilly fixture into the 21st Century.
First to go was the décor which looked as though it had been knocked up by the set designer of Michael Powell's version of The Thief of Baghdad. Out went the mosaics and magic carpets and in came the suede banquettes and frosted glass. It's now indistinguishable from every other high-end restaurant in London--the designer was Rana Salam but it could easily have been David Collins. The customers, too, appear to have been westernised. It used to attract Arab sheiks, complete with white sheets and fan belts round their heads, but now it's full of sleek young men in designer shirts accompanied by fabulously pretty girls. As one of my dining companions, a Chilean oil trader, put it, "For 30 years it was Saudi Arabia. Now it's Dubai."
More importantly, the two Omars brought in a new chef in the form of Karim Haidar, a Lebanese who emigrated to Paris in 1985 and opened his own restaurant in 1999. He called it L'Automne a Pekin, after the novel of the same name by Boris Vian, but changed it to Au 29 when the customers kept complaining that there were no spring rolls on the menu. It was impressed upon me by the Chilean oil trader, who's an expert at handling over-sensitive Arabs, that Mr Haidar is very serious about his food and wouldn't appreciate it if I started making jokes about Bubble and Sheep and the Souk of the Day. I decided against asking the waitress--a very pretty blonde called Anna--if she had any testicles.
Since there were three of us, we decided to order an assortment of mezze dishes at £22 a head, as well as two main courses from the a la carte menu. This was almost certainly too much, but my Chilean friend advised me that in Middle Eastern restaurants it's considered impolite to eat everything on the table. Indeed, unless we left at least 50%, Mr Haidar would be deeply offended. As it turned out, this wasn't very difficult.
I was expecting something exotic and extraordinary, the Lebanese equivalent of El Bulli in Spain, so I was a little surprised when the waitress reappeared with flat bread and humus. This was followed by stuffed vine leaves, lamb chipolatas, tabboule, yoghurt dip and aubergine puree. Shurely shome mishtake, I thought. It was perfectly alright, but it was the same old crap they dish up in every Middle Eastern restaurant. What happened to the 19 years Karim Haidar spent in Paris?
The two main courses weren't much better. One was a baked sea bream, the other some kind of asparagus concoction, and they confirmed my suspicion that Middle Eastern food is nearly always overcooked. The governing principle seems to be to cook something for as long as you possibly can, only whipping it off the stove when it threatens to turn into mush. The closer you can get to that disintegration point, the better. It's like a game of chicken. I can imagine a contest in which whole teams of Middle Eastern chefs stand around a giant stove and dare each other to take their pans off first. Last man cooking wins.
I feel guilty about giving Fakhreldine a bad review. The two Omars have clearly done everything in their power to modernise it, but, given the raw material, there's only so much they can do. For 30 years, Fakhreldine was the best Lebanese restaurant in London and, in spite of all their efforts, it's still only the best Lebanese restaurant in London.