Babel La Mer: Dining aboard the fisherman’s deck

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Updated 10 August 2018

Babel La Mer: Dining aboard the fisherman’s deck

  • Mezze is already a full-on feast of its own, and Babel knows how to put an ocean-twist on the traditional champions of Lebanon’s “tapas”
  • “Arabic restaurants depend on how good their hummus is”

Standing tall at the southern entrance of Dubai’s trendy, seaside open-air strip La Mer, Lebanese restaurant Babel welcomes diners to enjoy a Mediterranean seafood experience.

Upon entering the high-ceilinged restaurant, diners are met with a faux-night sky that hovers above the wide selection of fresh fish tidily nestled on a bed of ice chips that stretches across the hall. Charbel, an experienced fish connoisseur, stands behind the assortment, detailing the different types of fish and crustaceans and how they would be best enjoyed — grilled, fried or raw. He’s also there to make sure you don’t over-order, as the mezze selection is “extremely rich and worth every bite,” as he put it.

He was right. After taking our seats, we were served a delightful salty algae, a tangy chili sauce and the typical Lebanese mixed nuts and sunflower seeds you’d find at any Lebanese restaurant. Be sure to only take a bit of each though — there’s plenty more to come. 

Mezze is already a full-on feast of its own, and Babel knows how to put an ocean-twist on the traditional champions of Lebanon’s “tapas.” Among the winners — and highly recommended dishes that are must-orders for any first-time (and surely second- or third-) visitors — were the shrimps fatteh (a bed of shrimps sautéed with garlic, lemon and parsley topped with yoghurt, eggplants and fried pita bread) and Tabboulet El Bahar (Arabic for Sailor’s Tabbouleh) which features shrimps mixed with wheat sprouts, tomatoes, onions and parsley. It’s refreshing when experimentation with classic staples yields mouthwatering results.

My father always told me, “Arabic restaurants depend on how good their hummus is.” And as he’s a heavy-set, stubborn Lebanese man who refuses to have a below-par bite, you can take his word for it. He would, I believe, have ordered three plates of the Hummus Beiruti for the table. It’s a pleasantly tangy dish mixed with radishes, parsley and mint. This, accompanied by the well-dressed shrimps and octopus à la Provençale (read: sautéed with garlic, lemon and parsley) and small, crispy cubes of batata harra (spicy potatoes) are the deserving opening acts to the much-awaited main show.

Charbel recommended we go with the ultimate trifecta of the ocean — the prongs of Poseidon’s trident: Grilled jumbo shrimps, fried Sultan Ibrahim (threadfin bream) and charcoal-grilled sea bass. Seafood is all about freshness and too much seasoning can overpower the natural flavors and ruin the whole experience. But Babel makes sure it’s the fish flavor that takes center stage. Small bits of burnt charcoal on the butterfly-opened sea bass complemented the tender fish flesh, as they did on the jumbo shrimps. The Sultan Ibrahim was lightly fried — not so much as to have Greenpeace protest an oil spill, but enough to make the outer skin crunchy with every bite and keep the inner flesh soft and succulent. 

After all that, it’s safe to say that we weren’t just stuffed... we were primed to explode. 

After clearing the table, our server brought us the desert menu, only for us to rapidly wave him away — “Please, no more...” — while patting our bloated bellies. However, he insisted we try the Ghazlieh, the Arabic version of cotton candy, topped with lotus-cookie chunks and caramel sauce. Our resolve already defeated by the mere description of this — and, honestly, what’s an Arabic feast without desert? — we gracefully acquiesced.

I woke up the next morning wishing I had had more of it. The featherlight cotton candy hairs melted into sugar crystals on the tip of our tongues while swing dancing with the cookie bits and caramel sauce, only to be lit up by the vanilla ice-cream hidden at the bottom.

Stop salivating and book a table.

Comptoir Libanais brings the Levant to London

Comptoir Libanais has outlets across the UK. (All images supplied)
Updated 19 September 2018

Comptoir Libanais brings the Levant to London

  • Comptoir Libanais has 22 branches around the UK
  • The restaurant is known for its colorful interior and delicious food

LONDON: For years, London has been known for embracing culinary tastes from all over the world, served up by establishments ranging from snazzy and glitzy new restaurants to venues that are more than 100 years old and have been handed down from one generation to the next.
Comptoir Libanais (Lebanese Canteen), which was founded in 2008, stands out among the more recent arrivals for bringing a true, authentic taste of the Levant to London and beyond, with almost two dozen restaurants in the English capital and other cities including Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford and Liverpool.

For years when he was a child growing up in Algeria, Tony Kitous, the restaurant’s founder and owner, watched his mother create tasty meals for his family. This was something he carried with him when he moved to England at the age of 18.
“I came to London with a dream but it wasn’t until I scrubbed dishes and slept in friends’ houses that I realized what I wanted my dream to be: To bring a taste of home to London, a city I grew to enjoy and love,” he said.
Kitous’s passion for Middle Eastern food and what it symbolizes, the culture and hospitality, is clear in his colorfully decorated restaurants, which resemble traditional Beirut canteens or souks. The menu offers a mix of hearty and light dishes, including mezzes, wraps, grills, salads and traditional side dishes.
“I want all visitors to feel right at home, even if they’re on the go,” said Kitous. “The patrons that try the restaurant for the first time can see how we choose the freshest ingredients from our partners and can truly feel as if they’re in the Levant region.
“Lebanese food is universal. It has a bit of everything in it without having the ingredients over powering one another — all dishes complement one another.”
Every dish, every ingredient and even the plates on which they are served are personally selected by Kitous. “Nothing but fresh is allowed here,” he said.
It all sounds great but does the food live up to the expectations? I dined at the Oxford Street branch and found that the fatoush, hummus and cheese sambousak were great starters. The fresh halloumi manousha had just the right amount of crispiness around the edge, with a soft middle complementing the cheese.
The lamb and prune tagine, served with a side of couscous, swept us to the streets of Morocco. The lamb was soft and melted in the mouth, complemented by the sweetness of the prunes. As a vegetarian option, the aubergine tagine was balanced and tasty.
For Arab diners the menu is filled with the tastes of home and it is hard to imagine how anyone could limit themselves to ordering just one dish. Every option was perfectly seasoned and the table was a beautiful, tasty mess — truly a canteen experience.
The interior design of all Comptoir Libanais venues is similar, offering a burst of color and eccentricity through mismatched tiles, colorful furniture and walls adorned with old Arabic movie posters, including one of legendary actress Sirine Jamal Al-Dine with her signature smile. Thanks to an open kitchen in the back, the restaurant is always bustling with activity and the sounds of patrons enjoying their meals. You could really sense the hints of Kitous’s childhood memories imprinted in the decor. Whether you are in the mood for a hearty breakfast, a quick lunch or a good, delicious dinner to end your day, Comptoir Libanais will not disappoint.