On the 1st October, Exeter welcomed yet another new restaurant in the rejuvenated Guildhall with the grand opening of Comptoir Libanais. Mainly a London-based chain, the restaurant is only the second of twelve to open outside of the capital city, aspiring to provide the West with wholesome Middle-Eastern food. Comptoir Libanais literally translates as ‘Lebanese counter’, and this is exactly the vibe you get. The restaurant is large, open-plan and exquisitely decorated, transporting you out of the South West bubble and into a lively Eastern bazaar the moment you step inside.
The restaurant has an authentic feel; with an array of colourful geometric tiling lining the floor, hundreds of curious light shades suspended from the ceiling, and innumerable urns, bags and baskets hanging from every wood-panelled wall. However, these items are more than just decorations, they are also for sale – when we asked where these exotic pieces originated, we were told that they are all hand-picked by Tony (the man behind Comptoir Libanais) from the markets of Syria, Lebanon and other Middle-Eastern countries. This explains why the items are quite pricey to purchase; they are all flown over to England from thousands of miles away and cannot simply be replaced via online shopping. The beautiful, colourful baskets adorned with embroidery would make great Christmas presents, whilst the silver urns were particularly intriguing to us, especially the ones in the corner which cost the grand total of £600 (maybe not a Christmas present!). The restaurant also sells other Middle-Eastern items: bags of nuts, sweets and baklava (which you might remember from The Great British Bake Off a few years ago) and these are quite popular in the shop; the manager told us that they sold out of Turkish Delight within just a few days of opening.
Other notable features were the fez hats displayed on the wall, evoking a culture very far-removed from everyday life in Exeter, and the beautiful stained glass door which really is instagram-worthy. However, there is a more behind this than first appears, as the stained glass door is also a glance backwards towards a segment of Middle Eastern history; the legend of a prince who ordered artists to recreate the beautiful effect of light dappled through the shade of a walnut tree. These artists brought stained glass windows into being by creating, carving and fitting coloured glass into geometric windows. (source: http://www.agcmagazine.com/VolumeOne/ArticlesSamples/V1_History_MiddleEastern_stainedGlass.html)
The cuisine is loosely centred around key ingredients like halloumi, couscous and falafel, giving you chance to remove yourself from the many Italian restaurants and takeaways which line the streets of Exeter. Their dishes are fresh, colourful and full of flavour, and for the quality of the food, the prices are reasonable. Plus, the portion sizes are particularly generous – we chose to share the mezze platter for one (£9.50) to start, and this was plenty. (Hummus fans, take note: Comptoir’s hummus, which came on the mezze platter, is pretty special).
For the mains we opted for the aubergine tagine (£8.95), which you could have either with couscous or vermicelli rice, and the chicken taouk wrap (£8.50). Though this may seem a little steep for a wrap, picture the scene: strips of marinated chargrilled chicken breast, pickled cucumber, lettuce, tomato and a smooth garlic sauce, all rolled in a type of flatbread. Not exactly the standard chicken wrap found in a meal deal at Tesco. In fact, it was probably one of the best wraps we’ve ever tasted. The aubergine tagine was also bursting with flavour, with a varied texture consisting of chunky aubergine pieces, soft slow roasted tomato and pureed lentils, which blended very well into the sauce. The portion of couscous complemented the well seasoned tagine effectively, and a spoonful of mint yoghurt added an extra flavour, making the dish very palatable. As Comptoir Libanais note on their website their food is light and healthy, and is easily adaptable to suit individual tastes – their menu also contains clear symbols to help vegetarians and those who are gluten free.
While the service suffered slightly from lack of staff, this can accounted for by the fact that they’ve only been open a week, and this will most likely be rectified in time. Plus, despite these teething problems, the food actually arrived fairly quickly – the kitchen staff being both meticulous and efficient. Given that we were particularly hungry, this redeemed the slight lack of attentiveness from the waiting staff during the meal. Also, we were later told the restaurant broke all opening week records and has been far busier they had anticipated, so we can forgive them for being deservedly popular.
All in all, Comptoir Libanais is a bright and lively restaurant filled with unusual and charming touches: mint leaves in the tap water, strawberry flavoured fanta, and ice cream topped with honey roasted nuts. They even serve Middle-Eastern style breakfast if you fancy spicy Armenian sausages first thing in the morning. But if you want to stick to pitta, halloumi and hummus at lunch or dinnertime, then Comptoir Libanais is the place to be. And for those of you who prefer to dine in pyjamas, you’ll be pleased to know that it will be coming to Deliveroo very soon, so watch this space.
-Anna Bonet and Lucy Lincoln
Comptoir Libanais is located in the newly developed Queen Street Dining area in Exeter and is open Monday-Saturday 8:30am-11:30pm and Sundays 9am-10:30pm. Opening hours may change in the near future. Student discount will likely be available Mon-Thurs in a few weeks time.
If you feel particularly inspired to try cooking some Lebanese food yourself, Comptoir have their own page dedicated to familiarising us with a range of Middle-Eastern ingredients and ideas for recipes. You can find it here: http://www.comptoirlibanais.com/journal/