Comptoir Libanais, tucked away in Guildhall, is a vibrant, homely yet exotic Lebanese restaurant which, like many restaurant chains overwhelming Exeter, has tailored its menu to the cultural January incentive to practice veganism – creatively coined ‘Veganuary.’ Many who opt for this ‘dry’ January of, rather than no alcohol, no meat, dairy and other animal-based products, seek a healthy alternative, a dietary challenge and an experience of eating in a certain way which proclaims to be more environmentally friendly. With veganism on the rise, not only for the month of January, it seems natural for restaurants to want to seize this dietary development and create their own vegan options which do not simply proclaim falafel or chickpeas as their main ingredients. Veganism is a challenge, not only for those pursuing it as their diet for the month of January or the duration of their dietary existence, but also for restaurants who must stand out using what appears to be a limited landscape of ingredients to choose from.
However, Comptoir Libanais makes a worthy attempt to remove the challenge of veganism, to attend to its dietary requirements as if there were no requirements at all. The food ultimately was colourful and interesting, just like the visual interior of the restaurant itself.
To start, I chose the vegan option which included a hummus, chickpea puree with tahina and lemon juice accompanied by flatbreads. First to note is that the starter is more than ample for one person, and the hummus threatened any room for a main. Whether you are vegan or not, this would be my recommended starter. It was promptly served, with a sprinkle of spice and visible chickpeas, creating a textured and flavoured hummus which makes it a starter worth ordering and sharing.
Moving onto the main, I selected the vegan option of the aubergine tagine accompanied by a choice of either couscous, quinoa, or rice. The dish consisted of aubergine cooked with tomato, pepper, onion and chickpea in a stew. Far from being watery or unfilling, this main was beautifully cooked. The array of vegetables rested on a fluffy bed of quinoa, with pomegranate seeds adding a natural sweetness and colour to the dish, combining to create a delicious main which was not difficult to finish.
What make restaurants appealing, I find, is that I like to order and eat dishes I know I could never recreate to the smallest of details in my smallest of student kitchens. While veganism appears to have a limited scope for variation and interesting ingredients, Comptoir succeeded in creating a main that still tasted deliciously out of my culinary ability. It was fragrant but light, and rich in herbs but subtle in sweetness. All the elements worked together rather than relying on one meat element or a cheese dressing as many non-vegan dishes tend to do. It made veganism delicious, made it feel as though the vegan dishes were an equivalent to any meat or vegetarian mains rather than a combination of leftover ingredients.
For dessert, I selected the orange and almond cake served with an orange and sultana marmalade. For me, a dessert with orange has already secured my choice whether it is vegan or not. However, my one critique with the dessert is that the accompanying marmalade was overly sweet and almost bitter, detracting from the lightness and the moisture of the sponge. Any almond taste was defeated by the overpowering orange. Perhaps to rectify this, almonds could have been incorporated in the marmalade to balance the two components, rather than allowing the orange to reign as the sole flavour. The dessert appeared to privilege one ingredient rather than fuse different combinations together in a similar beautiful balance which the main achieved.
Nevertheless, whether you are a committed vegan or a temporary one, or simply want to eat out and feel it has a healthy benefit to justify its expenditure, I would recommend Comptoir Libanais. It is a restaurant with diverse vegan options which reach beyond the simple vegan burger, adding a taste of Lebanese culture rather than a taste of vegetable substitution. The food is rich, affordable, vibrant, and vastly different to many options available on the Exeter high street. If you aim to commit to Veganuary but want to eat out without missing out, Comptoir Libanais is a restaurant which caters for all.
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