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Friday, April 9, 2010

World Travels: England and their Enchanting Nights

Friends on the search for an eatery to rest at after a day of full-on sightseeing

Arabian nights, culinary delights and good home cooking surround your taste buds in London.

Rain is usually the fastest way to mess up a vacation. In London it’s a way of life. Even in a downpour the locals walk in shorts and t-shirts and simply whip out a compact umbrella to hide from the rain—or not. Today, it’s a modest 73 degrees, and no rain can stop the search for authentic Middle Eastern fare, especially with a culinary tip in hand: Edgware Road.

As you find a chair in one of the dozens of restaurants on the southern stretch of the Edgware Road, you’re instantly shuttled away from the double decker buses and pomp and circumstance of London to the homey enclave of the Middle East. LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Company) and Al-Jazeera argue via satellite on dueling televisions, mint tea replaces Earl Grey on the tables and the conversation is decidedly political. The covered waitress takes my falafel order (the menu is partly written in Arabic, partly in broken English), and a man at the next table starts a conversation with me through a thick cloud of smoke from his hookah. You want to check outside to make sure you are still in jolly ol’ England.

When the waitress tells me to keep the news of hookah smoking under wraps due to the impending smoking ban, I remember, of course, I am still in London. Still, something about Al Tanoor—a makeshift sidewalk café—is so very like those in Cairo or Beirut that it tricks the mind and the spirit.

Before arriving in London, I had heard about this city’s Middle Eastern London quarter. Some called it “Little Lebanon,” and others “Awesome Arabia.” And it does have a little of everything for those seeking Arabia—lots of traffic, eateries and even a barber for “Authentic Arabian Shaves.”

Edgware is definitely a melting pot, with customers and vendors hailing from all corners of the world, including Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and even the United States and Canada. One look around, and the diversity is astounding. Conversations are something out of a Saturday afternoon B-movie, where you step through a Utopian black hole to discover an alternate world of peaceful coexistence that Martin Luther King, Jr., or Beth Mahmoud-Howell, a founder of the Middle East Peace Camp, might have promised in speeches long passed.

Rivalries between different countries are put aside—they are people, first and foremost, and the rest of the junk takes a backseat to food and living for today. London businessmen mix at ease with housewives, wayward youth, hejab-covered women, trendy half-clothed twenty-somethings and the American or European tourist here to taste the delights of the road.

At Green Valley, the largest supermarket for miles, the Moroccan butcher shows off his wonderful kafta kabob skewers. “Ideal for barbecue,” he says. When I tell him I’m over at the 51 Buckingham Gate apartments for a few days on vacation, his hospitality compels him to offer some Saudi dates and finds something more suitable for kitchen cooking. “You picked the right street to shop. Here everyone just finds what they want without a problem,” he says.

“So why here and not other places around London or the world?” I ask.

“Britain used to own the whole world. In the process they brought a little from everywhere back with them. On Edgware Road it just all blends together like a great story.”

But that’s only the beginning at Green Valley and on Edgware Road. Choosing baklava—those delicious sticky pastries—is another Middle Eastern ritual, and in this part of London, you’ll be spoiled, since it easily sells the biggest range this side of Beirut. Try the cream-filled ­specials displayed alongside blocks of top-grade nougat and Turkish delights dusted with powdered sugar. Unusual produce includes fresh pistachios, yellow dates from Jordan and ridged tomatoes from the mountains of Lebanon. Past the long shelves of tins and barrels of olives, the dairy counter sells wonderful cheeses, while bakers lift fresh manakish (Middle Eastern pizzas) from the wood-fired oven.

“It is great to have such a thriving cafe culture here in London,” says Maysoon Qitab. Many of my friends have grown up here in the UK. But to us newcomers, areas like Edgware are amongst our favorite places to meet, as it reminds us of our heritage. Summer is the best time to fully enjoy the atmosphere; you could easily think you were in Amman or Dubai.”

For coffee, head to Markus Coffee Company, where they have carefully roasted 26 varieties in their vintage German roasting machine since 1957. Regulars promise that a mix of Negresco and Regent is the real deal. The Odeon cinema, once the location of the biggest screen in London, often shows films in Arabic, while the Green Man pub offers inexpensive kabobs, fish and chips, a huge range of beers and European and Asian football matches on flat screen televisions.

A chef at Ishbilia prepares Lebanese-style gyros
Stepping outside Edgware is equally tantalizing. This summer, Ishbilia was the name on everyone’s lips at the Buckingham Gate. From the concierge to the lady in the next spa chair, everyone agreed that for a whiff of South Lebanon in both hospitality and flavor, this is the place to be. A £30 taxi ride (at least $60!) from the hotel brought me to Harrods, a department store so large that they hand out maps when you enter. Inside is Ishbilia, and the line, I hear, can be endless. But not today. The handsome Mohammed greets all of the customers and is in command of everything from the menus to the fact that table 24 needs more flat water and Jordanian olives.

The lunchtime crowd is something out of the United Nations, with almost every conceivable country seemingly represented. In a flash, the mezza filled the table with hummus (garbanzo dip), tabouleh (chopped parsley salad with cucumber, tomato, mint, bulgur etc.) moutabel (eggplant dip), baked eggplant with sesame oil and lemon juice, grilled halloumi cheese on Lebanese bread, minced lamb served with toasted bread, yogurt and pine nuts. The vibrant atmosphere in Ishbilia is more than you would expect in a department store eatery. It’s something you would expect in rural Lebanon or Syria. The chefs cheerfully invite you and will even give you a quick cooking lesson, while the waiters joke with you without neglecting their work. It’s safe to say that there’s nothing ordinary about Harrods or Ishbilia. The challenge remains on how to tackle the shopping once your stomach is satisfied.

Gossip about where to eat is the best way to find your way around in London. I heard many people saying, “If Beirut parties the way they do at Maroush, then we’re on the next plane out of town.” This super-stylish restaurant did not disappoint. At Maroush 5 (the 5 being very important, since there are so many Maroushes scattered about London), the wonderfully intimate bar and entertainment area downstairs have an infectious charm that keeps you coming back every Saturday night.

It’s cozy and convenient with its “club” cellar and provides a trendy, cultural trip for the young and young at heart. While the food was traditional mezza and araks (a licorice tasting cocktail), it was the nightlife that sealed the deal. Once the music started, it, happily, drowned out the mobile phones and filled the air with Greek and Arabic favorites. The night absolutely rocked!

With belly dancing and live performances spaced throughout the evening, it was a night to remember on our 3 a.m. stroll, looking for a £30 ride back to the Buckingham.
The fountains at 51 Buckingham Gate are a welcome sight after a long day of sightseeing.

The finest doormen in the UK await you at the Mandarin Oriental.