In those day dreams you sometimes have about your Plan B career, I float between opening my own cosy coffee shop where punters can peruse over shelves-upon-shelves of travel books and slice their forks into big chunks of red velvet cake (it’s my idea, don’t steal it) and becoming a restaurateur. On the days I lean towards the restaurant idea, I’m generally running an incredibly busy (and of course successful) joint in a thriving London neighbourhood, where jovial diners are all reaching into big colourful sharing plates of delicious Lebanese-style cuisine.
I say this, because sharing platters seem to make everything a bit more cheery and exciting. It’s taken me a while to say this – the whole idea of sharing food, especially Spanish tapas, just didn’t used to excite me. Give me platters of bold Middle Eastern flavours – pitta bread, falafel and juicy shawarma – however, now that fills me with joy.
It’s this wholesome feeling of ‘togetherness’ that is ingrained in the Lebanese culture and inspired Lebanese restaurateur Emilio Malik to open Lazeez, a restaurant off the corner of Duke Street in Mayfair. As far as I believe, it began primarily as a shisha cafe. And while you will still see people smoking these golden pipes on the pavement, huddled in blankets by the glowing heaters, the food is now just as much of a focus as this Middle Eastern pastime.
My friend and I took a seat in the Lazeez Tapas Maze Lounge, a subterranean dining area resplendent in traditional Middle Eastern interiors. The walls are a mix of green marble-effect and postbox red decor, which give it a warm and cosy feel. And the space is filled with traditional ornaments, like beautifully ornate plates, mosaic tealight holders and a rotary dial telephone in a fabulous brushed silver. After we comfied ourselves into our lovely surroundings, Emilio popped his head in to say hello and offer his recommendations from the menu.
The ‘tapas’ menu appears more extensive than I expect, so I’m grateful for Emilio’s guidance. It’s divided into hot and cold and varies from lamb and chicken shawarma and grilled liver, to soujok (spicy meat sausage) sambousek lamb (minced lamb-filled pastry), fried aubergine and sambousek cheese (pastry filled with cheese).
We go for the Lazeez Grilled Platter, a large plate packed with mounds of colourful food which we can’t wait to delve into. The lamb cubes and shish taouk (chicken kebab) are delicious when crammed into the warm pitta bread, topped with a blob of the thick and creamy hummus.
The falafal is good and the motabaal (dip made from tahini and aubergine) is everything I love about Middle Eastern cuisine. As for the vine leaves, they’re gorgeously moist with that slightly acidic tang. Yet they’re robust enough to dunk into all the yummy dips. It’s sprinkled with various types of fresh and delicious salad including those almost illuminous pink pickles (please someone, tell me what makes them this colour!) This whole dish will set you back almost £30, but offers a fantastic array of flavours, and enough sustenance for 2-3 people.
Those who – like my friend – are vegetarian, will find plenty of meat-free options on the menu. We both arrived ravenous, so we ordered the additional grilled halloumi cheese, plus the chickpea and aubergine based mousaka. Both were pleasing and proved to be the ultimate comfort food. We accompanied our feast with a glass each of traditional Lebanese wine which was suitably dry, to accompany our smorgasbord of powerful flavours.
When a large ornate teapot of mint tea and a plate of baklava arrived, I began to regret our ambitious ordering. But I always have room for these sweet pastry parcels. At Lazeez, they taste like the real deal and offered a fantastic end to our evening.
While this den-like dining room was relatively quiet, it’s a lovely ambient place to escape to. You’d never think you were on the door step of Selfridges and the hectic pace of Oxford Street. They also manage to bring a distinct character and feeling of humbleness to a small corner of Mayfair. A quick chat with Emilio for example, tells me that 10% of all food and drink sales at Lazeez are currently being donated to Syrian refugees in Eastern Lebanon. It makes us like this place even more.
I’m not quite sure I’ll ever make it to be a restaurateur like Emilio. In reality, I think I enjoy being on the other side of things way too much. But if in another life it happens, I’d like to think I’d serve food like this – the kind that’s tasty, informal and fills you with joy.
Until next time x