In this series, we review London’s restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle.
Fakhreldine, London’s oldest and most iconically glamorous Lebanese restaurant in Mayfair, closed down in 2012 after 35 years. It went through some changes towards the end, trying to establish a younger, more nightclubby vibe – but in its heyday it attracted top celebrities and diplomats, and served seriously good food. We have many happy memories of eating there in childhood. Fakhreldine’s last head chef Youssef Harb, along with two of his colleagues, has now set up another Lebanese restaurant in Southgate.
Warda – a girl’s name that means ‘rose’ in Arabic – looks both contemporary and conservative. Neutrally decorated in browns and creams, it has comfy banquettes, good-sized tables, large lampshades and a slick bar counter at the back. Mezze is what we usually associate with Lebanese restaurants, but here the chef’s speciality is his family’s repertoire of slow-cooked dishes, usually prepared by women at home but now gradually disappearing.
For vegetarians, there are only two of these slow-cooked main courses on the menu (also available as mezze): moussaka, and bemieh (okra in tomato sauce). However, there’s a separate vegetarian mezze section with a wide choice; plus all the dips, salads and side dishes are meat-free. There’s also an excellent-value 3-course vegetarian menu at £22.50, which includes several mezze.
The food is superb. We devoured tangy, deeply smoky baba ganoush studded with a scattering of garnet-red pomegranate seeds; and fresh mint, parsley and green chillies added a lively kick to hummus beyruti. Green chillies, along with heaps of garlic and coriander leaves, transformed the humble batata hara – fried potato cubes, crispy from outside, tender within – into a deliciously moreish dish that we couldn’t stop eating. Grilled halloumi was served simply with a few mint leaves, but the cheese’s quality shone through.
Sad specimens of Greek-style moussaka, associated with student food or ready meals in the UK, are often made with tinned tomatoes and white sauce – but when properly cooked, widely different variations of the dish are found around the world. This Lebanese version is more like a stew: piled into a bowl, it’s made with tomatoes pieces and freshly cooked chickpeas, the whole lot given silkiness by a mass of butter-soft aubergines.
Bulgur wheat and pumpkin kibbeh stuffed with chickpeas and spinach divided opinion though. They had a pleasantly prominent taste of sweet Lebanese 7-spice mix that might be too overpowering for some; and we couldn’t see or taste the vegetables; but we liked the kibbeh’s dense texture and earthy flavour. More flamboyant spicing was found in wonderfully crumbly sesame-studded falafel, somewhat uncommonly flavoured with a spice paste. Indeed the distinctive use of spices is something that sets Warda apart from other Lebanese restaurants.
The only dud dish was katayef from an otherwise imaginative desserts menu. Supposedly filled with walnuts, fig jam and ashta (Lebanese clotted cream), the somewhat hard, greasy crescents of dough only had an indistinct taste of chocolate and nuts. Much more interesting was tehlayi jnoubieh: a fabulous platter of sesame halva served alongside a little dish of whole baby fig jam, a dinky little jug of carob syrup and a piece of sesame bread. You pour the syrup onto the halva, top with the jam, and eat with the bread. We could happily scoff this simple, homely dish every day.
To drink, there are cocktails and a great selection of Lebanese wines; and our 2010 Maison from Karam Winery was the perfect accompaniment. The bill for all this, including mineral water, tea and service charge, amazingly came to only around £20 per head. Service was generally friendly and efficient, but a little slow and distracted at busy times.
Warda serves vibrant, confident, skilfully prepared food of a central London restaurant in its heyday – but one that also reflects the changes that have taken place in the Lebanese dining scene over the years. Lucky Southgate residents.
Warda, 22 The Broadway, The Bourne, Southgate N14 6PH. Tel: 020 3583 3438.