IT'S NOT often that I return to an already written-about
restaurant in these pages, but I wish to do so now on two counts. The first is that I have eaten here so much more regularly than in any other restaurant I have written about — with the exception of the Ivy and the Caprice, and maybe Cibo — that it seems to demand special treat- ment; the second is that I'd like to assure everyone that Al Hamra continues to flourish. It's necessary for me to say that since, when writing a few months ago about a newer Lebanese restaurant in Knightsbridge, I said that Al Hamra had lost its chef and much of its staff to it. I'd had this confirmed by quite a few disin- terested sources and so presumed it, mis- takenly, to be the case.
Anyway, it is not the case: the same chef has been at the Al Hamra ever since it opened and four of us ate there as glorious- ly as ever a week or so ago. I don't go in for the American habit of conducting my dinner parties in restaurants, but if there are more than two of you, this is the best sort of place to come. You don't a deux, have quite the excuse to run barefoot through the list of mezze that you do if you're eating in any number. But if there are only two of you don't be put off: be brave, be greedy.
I couldn't come here and not eat the moutabel (which you might have come across elsewhere as Baba Ghanoush), a rich, smoky puree of aubergine, garlic, sesame and lemon, dribbled with olive oil and ruby-red pomegranate beads; 'exciting and vulgarly seductive' wrote Claudia Roden of it and she ain't wrong. Orders of this should be increased by the ratio of one dish per two persons present.
Tabbouleh is the other must. This is the salad, for want of a better word, of burghal and parsley that arouses the sort of con- troversy in the Middle East that salad nicoise does in the Midi. Should there be tomatoes? More burghal or more parsley? Less mint than coriander? Every cook has his or her own way of cooking, and all cooks are adamant that their way is the only right one. At Al Hamra it is decidedly green and freshly, lemonly astringent, which does, in fact, offset better the deep-flavoured, grainy, palate-thickening dips and purées of the mezze table.
As I get older I get more and more inflexible, and now I don't even worry about ordering the same every time. I have to have batrakh — rather like taramasalata left in its discrete parts, unblended and better for it — slices of smoked roe, pungent and glistening, topped with a lengthways cross-section sliver of ivory garlic, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. I prefer what's usually known over here as hummus, left whole and unmashed- up too. In fact, hummus — or hommos or however you choose to transliterate it — refers simply to the chick peas themselves. The way we have it, in the common supermarket pairing with taramasalata, is hummus bi tahina (with sesame paste), but I like Al Hamra's hommos sada — warm, whole and dripping with garlic and thick, green olive oil. I wouldn't mind trying the hommos kawarmah — the chick peas are sprinkled with diced lamb and pine nuts — but I bowed to my vegetarian co-eaters.
In fact, this is the perfect place to come with people who don't eat meat. I did order a couple of fleshy things (I can never quite hold back from their spicy little sausages or garlic-soused chicken wings), but to be quite frank, the above together with the foul moukala (broad beans swathed in garlic, coriander and olive oil), labneh (a yoghurty cream cheese), falafel (broad bean and chick pea croquettes) fatayer (tiny spinach-stuffed pastry en- velopes) and several baskets of warm, flat bread was more than enough. The fact that we managed some rose-smelling, pistachio- sprinkled, honey-sweet little cakes after- wards is to no one's credit.
We drank beer with and coffee after- wards. It's difficult to give an indication of how much it will all cost as it depends a great deal on what sort of meal you really want, but I think four of you could over eat handsomely on £80. Worth bearing in mind next time you go to the Curzon.
Al Hamra, 31133 Shepherd Market, Lon- don Wl; tel: 071 493 195416934.
'A man in reception's offering us a scoop.'