Thyme, please

Food - Bee Wilson on Oxford's tasty Morsels

By some strange cultural coincidence, there are now no fewer than half a dozen places serving Lebanese food in Oxford. This city of Morse-frequented, darkened pubs is now a Mecca for spinach triangles and curd-filled crescents. I can't really explain why this Lebanese invasion should have happened, but it is undoubtedly a good thing, for residents and restaurateurs alike.

The original Oxfordian Lebanese restaurant is Al-Shami in Walton Crescent, a quiet residential street on the edge of Jericho. Here you are served great metal platters of pickles and salad before your meal even begins: a whole head of Cos lettuce, an unsliced tomato, curving pickled chillies, carrot sticks, olives both black and green and a few little half-moons of pickled turnip, coloured pink with beetroot, which you either love or hate (and I love). Next, I advise skipping the filling main courses (various kaftas, kibbehs, charcoal-grilled vegetables or baked fish with tahini) and ordering lots of mezze instead. Among the nicest are rounds of piquant Armenian sausages (sujuk), potatoes fried with coriander, a dish of mixed crushed nuts with chilli (mohammara bil-jawz), parsley-rich tabbouleh, fried chicken livers and garlicky chicken wings. Finally, have some Lebanese coffee, strong and fragrant with cardamom, and only 75p a cup. Al-Shami is the kind of place where you see distinguished professors of philology drinking Chateau Musar and talking softly: very civilised.

The atmosphere is more rakish at Liban, a restaurant upstairs from Boswell's department store. Our first sight on entering was of a man reclining on a sofa smoking with a hubbly-bubbly. The room is decked out patriotically in red, green and white, the colours of the Lebanese flag, and Lebanese pop music plays. During the day, the waiters serve chicken nuggets to undiscerning shoppers, but the Lebanese menu is ambitious, including several dishes with thyme, the nation's favourite herb. Hoummos here is unusually smooth and comes decorated with whole chick peas, a pleasing touch. Also memorable is farkeh, patties of fresh raw minced lamb, flavoured with all-spice and decorated with mint leaves and radishes. Crudites come with two sauces, one of mild chilli and the other of a smooth, garlicky yoghurt so good we ate it all, and then felt rather malodorous. The service is excellent, as one might expect, given that Liban is run by the former head waiter at Al-Shami.

To its credit, though, Liban is not just a clone of Al-Shami. The same cannot be said of Al-Salam, near the train station, whose name and menu are both near-replicas of Al-Shami, but in a less congenial setting.

Yet another Al-Shami spin-off is Ali's on the Cowley Road, an unpretentious takeaway operation serving sandwiches and prepared dishes. Ali used to be a chef at Al-Shami, which he talks about with high feeling. His food is prized by a poet I know who writes about Scheherazade and Samarkand. She especially likes Ali's slow-cooked aubergines with chick peas and tomatoes and his wholesome moujadara of rice with brown lentils. Ali also sells thyme pitta and bottles of rosewater.

However, the finest Lebanese food to be had in Oxford is served at LB's delicatessan in Summertown. The proprietor is adamant that he has nothing to do with any of the restaurants - and indeed, the mezze and sweet cakes are made with an unusually light hand. Particularly delicious are a tender dish of bulgur wheat, a smoky and silken baba ghanoush and the okra cooked in tomatoes with not a trace of the sliminess that can afflict the vegetable. Broad beans with coriander were intensely lemony and moreish, as was a fine selection of kibbeh: a rice one, encasing meat with pine nuts, a round mushroom one and an ovoid lamb one, spicy and moist. Greedily, I wished afterwards that I had tried the chicken dishes as well. The pastries are outstandingly good, especially those made with pistachios. Behind the counter, LB's sells jars of dark-brown fig jam, packets of flat bread and large containers of those pink pickled turnips that Oxford has learnt to love.

Al-Shami, 25 Walton Crescent, OX1 (01865 310066)
Liban restaurant and hubbly-bubbly bar, 1-5 Broad Street, OX1 (01865 242494)
Al-Salam, 6 Park End Street, OX1 (01865 245710)
LB's, 253 Banbury Road, OX2 (01865 311660)

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up