I went to Abd el Wahab twice. The first time was with two friends, but we’d just come from a funeral, and had had ever so slightly too much to drink at the wake. The upshot being that when I came to look at my notes afterwards, they were somewhat lacking in the detail necessary for compiling a 1,000-word review. (Sample insight: ‘Potato.’)
So I went back again for lunch, this time alone. Only when the waiter started bringing out the food did I realise that I’d made an obvious mistake. More than once in this column I’ve written about the pleasures of eating out alone, and I stand by it. It’s great. But – as I should have remembered before going back to Abd el Wahab – there is a caveat. Don’t eat out alone if the restaurant is Lebanese.
This is because Lebanese food is not intended for one. It’s intended for groups. You order a range of dishes between you, and all dig in together. The food is social. The layout of tables at Abd el Wahab reflects this. There are very few tables for two. Mostly they’re for four or more.
And, as each dish is intended to be shared by several people, it tends to be reasonably generous. Which is why, on my second visit, I looked just a tiny bit silly, as the waiter began heaping my lonely table with enough food to feed an All Black’s stag do. I actually felt quite guilty. I could never finish all this. So much food was about to go to waste. I would have asked for a doggy bag, but unfortunately I didn’t have an Icelandic bodybuilder on hand to carry it for me.
There are already 18 branches of Abd el Wahab in the Middle East; this Chelsea branch is the first in Britain. Visually it’s pleasant but unremarkable: if you didn’t know in advance, you might not immediately guess the place was Lebanese. On first glance it just looks like a generic upmarket west London restaurant. Consummately bland.
The menu, though, is teeming with variety, and stretches for pages. From the list of cold mezze, I had the tabbouleh, a traditional herby salad. It was enormous, and tasted like a bowl of hedge clippings drenched in lemon juice. I also had the shanklish, which was billed as ‘aged pungent goat cheese’.
Lord, it was strong. Furiously strong. This must have been one bad-tempered goat. The accompanying chopped tomato attempted desperately to cool it down, like a man trying to restrain a drunk friend from starting a brawl in a bar.
From the hot-starters list I had the makanek, which turned out to be around 20 stubby little brown sausages bobbing in a pan of murky liquid. They tasted like lemon-flavoured Pepperami.
From the pastries list I had kebbeh, which were deep-fried balls of minced meat, onions and pine nuts. They tasted thick and dry and not especially flavourful. My biggest dish was the Mixed Grill Abd el Wahab: a great long tray groaning with slightly rubbery shrimp, lamb cutlets and taouk (chicken).
Now, it may sound as if I’m saying that the food at Abd el Wahab wasn’t very good. But here’s another thing about Lebanese food. In a way, there’s little point judging each dish individually, because the best way to eat them is in combination. Open out a pitta bread, smear the interior liberally with hummus, then stuff it with as many of the different meats and vegetables as possible.
I did this at Abd el Wahab, and it tasted glorious. So rich and full and varied and satisfying. The food worked like the Northern Irish football team: individually, its components seemed mediocre; yet together, they were difficult to beat. It’s the hummus that does it: bringing all these different flavours together, and uniting them, and bringing out their best.
After all that, I couldn’t possibly have squeezed down a pudding. Fortunately I’d tried three of the puddings on my first visit, and it turned out I’d actually made some intelligible notes about them. The Lebanese baklava was good: five little parcels of sweetness that tasted like crunchy honey sandwiches. One friend had the ashta, which he said tasted like cottage cheese covered in sliced banana. My other friend had the tart halawe, which resembled chocolate concrete.
We enjoyed ourselves, though, because, again, Lebanese food is social. And not just because it involves sharing. It’s social because it’s unobtrusive. The food doesn’t demand your concentration, or your awe; it’s not swanky, show-off experimental cuisine, to be consumed in a reverential silence, broken only by murmurs of high-minded appreciation, as if, instead of eating, you were pondering a Mondrian.
Instead, it’s simple, modest, low-key; brought out at speed, and then sitting there throughout while you all dip periodically into it, almost without thinking, because your attention is entirely on your friends, and your conversation. As I said at the start: food for groups.
But not, on the whole, food for a lone undercover restaurant columnist, trying not to look conspicuous as he picks his way feebly through the mountains of meat and bread.
If you fancy trying Abd el Wahab, don’t go alone. Unless you’re bringing a van for your leftovers.