Mezze with chic that won't break the bank

Timothy Barber
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Le Comptoir Libanais
65 Wigmore Street, W1U 1PZ, Tel: 020 7935 1110

Cost per person without wine: £16

THINK of affordable Middle Eastern food in London and you probably think of lowest common denominator chains like Tas, dishing out hummus-by-numbers in tired, tatty surroundings. But by incorporating a bit of French pizzazz into its title, Le Comptoir Libanais – it means “the Lebanese counter” – announces an altogether more modish intention. This is about bringing something chic and fresh to Middle Eastern dining. It manages this rather well – and at very good value.

The brains behind Le Comptoir Libanais is Tony Kitous, known for high-end Middle Eastern venues like Levant, Pasha and Kenza. Like those, Le Comptoir is in a fashionable location. Sitting amid the boutiques of Wigmore Street, a couple of minutes’ walk from Oxford Circus, it’s well positioned to cater to Selfridges shoppers, Marylebone fashionistas and West End office workers, and it does it with a mix of fun, unpretentious style and enticing food.

Inside, the first impression is of the colourful deli and fast-dining area – dominated by that counter – awash in a multitude of beautifully presented finger-food delicacies. Stacks of lovely green vine-leaf rolls, pastries, breads, wraps and salads seem to glow with enticing freshness – it’s hardly surprising that they do a brisk take-away service at lunch time. There are also shelves of deli foods, from jars of pickles and chickpeas to olive oils and cookery books, not to mention colourfully embroidered bags that could come from the finest Lebanese souk.

We went for table service and were offered an impressively extensive array of dishes and delicacies. There are masses of tapas-style mezze bites to pick – mostly around three quid a pop – simple entrees, salads and flatbreads, sharing platters and more substantial tagine and moussaka dishes if you want to fill up.

We got a mezze platter for two, a panoply of beautifully-arranged delicacies including a lush lentil salad, juicy and flavoursome vine rolls, pastry dumplings with spinach, aubergine baba ghanoush that’s deep and tasty, with red pomegranate seeds sitting on top of it, and herby falafel. It’s simple, high-quality finger-food that costs less than a tenner for two, and out-does equivalent dishes at other Middle Eastern establishments at twice the cost.

We shared a lamb meatball and tomato tagine as well, which came with couscous. It was good stuff, the meatballs sweet and not overcooked, the sauce deep and smoky. We followed all that up with some first-rate sticky baklava, and an orange blossom macaroon for good measure. If you just fancy popping in for a coffee or juice – there’s no alcohol served here – there’s a lengthy selection of cakes and pastries to have alongside.

The atmosphere is bright, modern and breezy, and the seated dining area beyond the deli counter has a Pop Art feel. One wall is covered with a Roy Lichtenstein-esque print of a woman’s face, while geometric patterns and pop versions of Arabic marketing logos adorn the other walls.

As an expanding chain – there are three others – Le Comptoir reminded me of the now-ubiquitous Leon. It’s not hard to imagine it having a comparable impact. With its bright red metal stools and chairs, it actually has the feel of a particularly funky primary school classroom.

A lot of thought has gone into creating a brand to deal with the populist end of the market, and it pays off – the place is buzzy, busy, and full of Eastern promise of the most chic kind.

Three places to eat Middle Eastern in London

A high-end Piccadilly favourite, with a dining room overlooking Green Park, a long list of smart dishes and grand mezze platters, and a stylish bar and lounge adjoining. 85 Piccadilly, W1J 7NB,

Sharing its owner with Le Comptoir Libanais, Levant is a more traditional and ornate immersion in Middle Eastern atmosphere, with incense, candles and belly-dancing. You can even smoke shisa pipes in the alley outside. Jason Court, 76 Wigmore Street W1U 2SJ,

London’s most famous Moroccan restaurant, a place mixing darkly exotic décor and fabulous North African food with a sense of sophisticated fun, that’s made it a consistently fashionable destination. 25 Heddon Street, W1B 4BH,