We met Comptoir Libanais’ head chef, Ahmed Salama, to find out more about the Middle Eastern menu, and what he’d order in the flagship restaurant, cafe and bar.
Comptoir Libanais is Manchester’s leading Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurant, café and bar. Located in the heart of Spinningfields, it’s brought a vibrant style to the area with boldly printed table clothes and piles of brushed copper bowls. They’ve not scrimped on floor space, with a huge, all-weather outdoor patio, as well as spacious zoned areas inside the restaurant.
Authentic mezze dishes, succulent grilled meats, rose mint tea and fine Lebanese wines are among Comptoir’s many charms. The menu is a lesson in the colourful, fresh foods of the Middle East and there’s a particular focus on traditional Lebanese dishes. From small plates to wholesome meals and set menus, Comptoir caters to all appetites, and there’s a hearty breakfast menu too.
While the food at Comptoir is mostly Lebanese, there are traditional dishes from Syria, Jordan, Morocco and many more locations to enjoy. Familiar dishes like hummus and fattoush are complemented by tagines, fresh, yoghurt-topped stews and sweet, slow-cooked cuts of meat.
Many dishes are unique to Manchester. Options include almost all the Middle Eastern topped flat bread choices (£5.45) as well as a rich green bean dish called loubiah. Other local specials include chicken livers (sawda djej, £4.95) and soujoc or sautéed, spiced lamb sausages with tomato and lemon (£5.50). There’s also a thrillingly slow cooked lamb shank tagine (Lamb Maqlooba Tagine, £11.95), which is up there with the best lamb dishes in Manchester.
The Spinningfields’ branch of Comptoir has been open for around a year now. Ahead of the launch, head chef, Ahmed Salama, moved from the South Kensington branch to oversee the opening. Having worked with Comptoir for many years, he was the perfect person to ask about the menu, and to find out more about some of his favourite dishes – and where they come from. We sat down with him to find out more:-
Salama explains that falafel (£4.75 for four pieces) can be made using chickpeas and/or broad beans. While it’s traditional to use just broad beans in Egypt (where he comes from), Comptoir’s recipe hails from Lebanon where a combination of broad beans and chickpeas is typical. Other key ingredients include tahina (sesame paste) salt and citric acid. In the Middle East they are often served with a creamy side order of hummus or tahina sauce – but falafels go with everything on the menu at Comptoir.
There is some debate about hummus' country of origin. But one thing’s for sure: this subtle blend of chickpeas, lemon juice and tahina is among the UK’s favourite dips. Comptoir’s version (£4.95, served with hot pita) is fabulously smooth too. An absolute must.
This bread and herb salad is served across the Middle East. According to Salama, the fattoush at Comptoir (£5.25) is “chopped so that you can see the individual salad elements such as mint, radish and lettuce”. The result is a recognisable salad with all the ingredients standing out. Crispy croutons are what differentiate fattoush from a regular salad. At Comptoir, pomegranate seeds, lemony sumac (striking red powder derived from dried flowers) and a ‘secret recipe’ apple vinaigrette add a twist to the classic formula. Ideal as a cold starter - or as a side with grilled meat - Comptoir’s fattoush is also delicious with pita and yoghurt.
Loubiah (green beans in a tomato sauce)
Loubiah (£4.75) or braised green beans in a rich, tomato sauce with olive oil, garlic and onion is, according to Salama, “a very regular dish in Middle Eastern countries”. The beans are cooked for longer than British chefs might cook them for - around 45 mins – and this satisfying vegetarian dish is usually served with rice, vermicelli rice (basmati rice, mixed with vermicelli pasta, £2.50) or as part of an authentic mezze selection.
Sambousek Cheese (cheese pastry)
Comptoir’s take on the traditional Lebanese pastry (£5.25) can be eaten at any time of day: it’s the perfect breakfast snack or starter. The recipe combines halloumi, feta cheese and mint and three light pastries are served with a salad and a dusting of white and black sesame seeds. Each golden parcel looks as good as it tastes.
Sawda djej (chicken livers with pomegranate molasses)
This popular Lebanese dish is tender chicken livers (£4.95), pan fried with pomegranate molasses and soft, sautéed garlic. Rich and memorable (its one of our favourite dishes on the menu), it’s ideal as part of a spread.
Lamb kofta grill or tagine
You’ll find several takes on lamb kofta (meatballs) at Comptoir. While the name is derived from the word for ‘ground meat’ in Persian, koftas are commonplace in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. Comptoir serves a ‘grilled’ Lebanese version with herbs, onions, spices and vermicelli rice (£10.95) and a Lamb Kofta Tagine (£10.95, served in a traditional Moroccan clay pot). Salama notes that what makes each region’s kofta different is the particular blend of spices in the meatball mix. For the grilled version at Comptoir, he uses salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, fresh onion, fine parsley, mint and just a hint of cinnamon. Ten minutes on the charcoal grill gives them a toasty flavour. We can’t recommend them highly enough.
Roasted Chicken Moussakahn
Inspired by traditional marinated and grilled chicken dishes from Jordan, Roasted Chicken Moussakahn (£10.95) takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘something hot’. Chicken is marinated for 24 hours before roasting. The dish is served with salad and vermicelli basmati rice imbued with spices, pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, lemon juice, onions and walnuts.
Lamb Maqlooba Tagine
Lamb shank is the new brisket – or is it the other way around? Either way, this slow-cooked Palestinian dish (£11.95) is only available at Comptoir Spinningfields. Topped with pomegranate seeds and yoghurt, tender lamb is served on a bed of rice, chickpeas and sticky aubergine served in a sauce that includes salt, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon and fried onions.
Coffee, cake and wobbly Rose Mouhalabia milk pudding No meal is complete without a coffee and dessert, and Lebanese coffee (£2.75) comes infused with whole cardamom pods for an almost menthol, uplifting hit. The dessert menu includes natural yoghurt, served in fragrant ways (with date syrup and nuts, Lebanese fig jam, or fresh pomegranate seeds and orange blossom water, all £3.45) as well as a ice creams, tarts, baklawa, chocolate cakes with tahina and a traditional, comforting, yet surprisingly light Rose Mouhalabia milk pudding (£4.45). Stirring milk at a low temperature and gradually adding