For a restaurant on the usually garish and blindingly obvious Park End Street, it’s hard to find Al Salam. The name of the restaurant is easy to miss from the outside, and it has a fairly nondescript exterior. Inside the restaurant, however, it is colourful, and the decoration is striking; you feel like you’ve just entered some kind of glittering cavern, which is what the restaurant seems to be trying to achieve. And it is not a bad effort, despite the fact that it looks a lot like every other Lebanese restaurant I’ve ever been to. The lit lanterns create patterns to fan out on the walls and ceiling, and mounted plates add splashes of colour. Unfortunately, the decorative theme does not carry across to the diner’s table, and the imitation bowls and plain water jugs with plastic caps made it seem as if we were dining at home.
A big issue was that while Western dining does not necessarily require large
tables, eating mezze does. We could barely fit everything onto the table and it was actually slightly uncomfortable not being able to gesture or even move whilst chatting to my friend for fear of knocking some (or all) of the dishes over. This was not the chic dinner out; this was student dining and I was somehow aware of it at every moment of the meal.
Our first choice for a grilled meat platter was not available, and neither were any of the desserts. We ordered kibbeh maqlia (£4.95), stuffed croquettes, sawada dajaj maqlia (3.95), chicken liver, kafta bi-tatatour (£8.25), ground lamb, Lebanese bread (£0.25), and a Lebanese coffee (£2.00). Having already apologised for not having our item of choice on the menu, the waiter then had to apologise for giving us not only the wrong dish but the entire meal of someone else from another table, which we ate anyway. This was the kafta djaj (£8.00), marinated chicken, ground lamb, and mixed vegetables (£2.45). The food was lacking in flavour, which was not at all what I am used to with good Middle Eastern cuisine. Good Middle Eastern cuisine is a balance and harmony of flavours and textures. Here, the herbs and spices were almost nonexistent, and if there were any in the ground lamb the overwhelmingly strong garlic sauce drowned them out. You couldn’t even taste the sesame oil. The sauce looked and felt like tahini. If you didn’t know what tahini is or had never really thought about its ingredients then it might be acceptable, but since the menu specified not ‘tahini’ but ‘sesame oil’, it was disappointing that it didn’t taste like sesame seed!
We also had this issue with what we called the ‘yoghurt’ dip, which the waiter rephrased as the ‘garlic’ dip despite it only having the very weakest of garlic tastes to it. Flavour aside, the texture of all the food, and the extent to which it was cooked, was excellent. The chicken was moist and the kibbeh crust was thin and crackly as it is absolutely supposed to be. The dips were not runny, the liver and bread were not too dry or rubbery, and the vegetables were not boiled to a mush. Yet although it was satisfactory — good value and large portions — the food did not “ignite my senses” as Al Salam claims on its website. One exception to the relative blandness of the dishes was my friend’s coffee. It took a while for it to arrive, but one sniff and I knew it was head and shoulders above normal black coffee. It had a herbal, almost medicinal flavour, which was surprisingly not bitter, even without sugar.
Perhaps the restaurant is too true to its name, ‘Al Salam’ (“peace be with you”). The food is too mild. I appreciated the peaceful environment — no music was played, providing an air of calm — but the food was not interesting enough for us either to savour it in silence or to comment on it during dinner. The service was utterly incompetent and most of the things we tried to order weren’t available. All in all, it was a severely mediocre evening.