The residents of Westbourne Grove have long been spoiled for choice with regard to restaurants. The standard in this neighbourhood has improved over these last years but it’s still Al Waha which boasts a full dining room every night.
This was my first visit to this restaurant but I had already heard great things from the worthy and the wise in the food industry. The welcome was warm. The restaurant was warm and the mint tea was hot. Sipping that tea gave me time to relax and enjoy the ambiance. Al Waha means “oasis,” and that’s exactly what it is. It exudes an ethnic but not overly themed charm. The walls are decorated in a simple but stunning fashion with the work of celebrated calligrapher Mouneer al-Shaarani. (It is he, I believe, who is responsible for Al Waha’s logo.) Arabic poetry, sayings and the Holy Koran are the subject matter but even those of us who can read not a stroke of the messages will be struck by their skill and beauty.
The proprietor is Mohammad Bader-Alden Antabli. He is a chef and a man who has dedicated himself to providing the best of Lebanese food. He has a ready smile and infectious enthusiasm for his dishes. He uses traditional and often lengthy cooking methods to provide his guests with an authentic taste of Lebanon. His standard dishes are far from standard and the memory of his Dishes of the Day will last all month.
The amazingly extensive menu offers many dishes found in any typical Lebanese restaurant but there is a world of difference in quality. Mohammad has a hummous (Kawarmah Hummous) but here it is topped with flavourful and tender fried diced lamb and pine nuts. It’s the texture that sets this particular version apart. It’s silky and refined and remarkably different from the more common, almost grainy paste found in other restaurants.
Moutabel, also known as babaganoush, is an aubergine and tahini dip. Yes, another Lebanese restaurant favourite but this one is different, it actually tastes of something and that something is roasted aubergines. The dip has a smoky flavour which comes from charring the vegetables rather than baking them. It takes more effort to make but the end result is a superior product and is good enough to be a signature dish.
Kibbeh Maklieh is a bulgur wheat shell, stuffed with minced lamb, onions, walnuts and pine nuts. These are formed into pointy-ended balls and deep fried. They are a popular mezze item and should be crunchy on the outside and meltingly moist and flavourful on the inside. These were, and they were moreish.
Falafel is found on fast-food carts all over the world. If you love those dubious nuggets then my advice is not to try the falafel at Al Waha. It will spoil you for that inferior street-food. The mixture of ground chickpeas, broad beans, garlic, onions and spices is worked to an amazingly light consistency. Delicate is not a word often associated with falafel but it does accurately describe Al Waha’s deep-fried delights. A simple dish but remarkably well executed.
Sambousek are small pastries with various fillings. We enjoyed those stuffed with minced lamb, onions and pine nuts, and the cheese tarts were rich and buttery, tangy and flaky – a must for any vegetarian. And there is a raft of other non-meat dishes: Fatayer, pastry stuffed with spinach, onions, pomegranate, pine nuts and walnuts; Warak Inab, vine leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices; Fattoush, mixed salad with herbs, toasted Lebanese bread, vinegar and a touch of garlic (this was noteworthy); Moussakaat Batinjan, fried aubergines with chickpeas, onions, tomatoes, garlic and spices; Salatate Al Rahib, smoked aubergines, green peppers, tomatoes, spring onions and garlic; Batata Harra, potatoes cooked with olive oil, garlic, red peppers, spices and green chilli, are also sought after by vegetarians who are so often overlooked by other cuisines.
Soujuk Sadah are Armenian lamb sausages, which have a hot vibrant flavour tempered by tomato and slices of garlic with which they are slowly cooked. Another of our meat-based selection was Kharoof Mahshi, tender lamb with rice, herbs, and nuts, served with fresh cucumber yoghurt salad. This was the Thursday special and worth pencilling in the diary – my companion proclaimed this to be one of the best lamb dishes he had tried in a long time. I have no idea if the other daily offerings are so tempting but I’ll make it my mission to try them on your behalf.
Baklawa are the celebrated sweet pastries of Lebanon and we had a selection of these sugary treats to munch along with our thick, cardamom-perfumed coffee. But also try the Mouhallabieh, a Lebanese milk pudding topped with rosewater syrup and ground pistachio nuts. This is a light and refreshing dessert and made a delicious and attractive end to our meal.
Al Waha is an award-winning restaurant and it’s easy to understand why. Everything about it merits a compliment or an accolade. It oozes quiet well-deserved confidence. Mohammad Bader-Alden Antabli provides guests with what they expect… and then adds a bit more. My next visit, for next there will surely be, will be on a Monday to sample Dajaj Mahshi (succulent baked chicken on a bed of rice, herbs and nuts, served with cucumber yoghurt salad), although Tuesday’s menu looks enticing…
Restaurant review: Al Waha Restaurant
Proprietor: M. Bader-Alden Antabli
75 Westbourne Grove, London W2 4UL
Telephone: 020 7229 0806
Visit Al Waha here
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018