Al Shami, Jericho, Oxford

When hunger strikes, don't mezze about

When hunger strikes, don't mezze about

First published in Food Reviews Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , covering theatre and food. Call me on 01865 425366

After an evening in the company of the Bard, only a Lebanese banquet will do for Katherine MacAlister

It’s hungry work watching Shakespeare. You can work up quite an appetite witnessing all that angst and murder, wailing and beating of chests, plotting and intrigue, betrayal and egomania.

Yes, Creation’s epic production of Macbeth left us feeling rather peckish, despite the monumental slaughter taking place around us.

The trouble was, by the time they had all finished each other off it was 10pm, ruling out most restaurants. Where to go? The car knew as it meandered from Lady Margaret Hall over to Jericho, up Little Clarendon Street, parking itself right outside Al Shami on Walton Crescent where it has resided since 1988, and the perfect antidote to all the grim darkness of the Bard’s famous tragedy, with its simple white interior.

Al Shami is one of my little black book entries and where I go when all else fails, my failsafe, reliable, delicious, unpretentious little backstreet favourite, open from noon to midnight every day, and where I have returned time and time again over the years, dragging visitors and friends with me whenever I get the chance.

This time it was my mother’s turn and I knew she’d love the meze style cuisine and its fresh, rich, exciting collection of dishes. As she’d never been before she asked me to order and I did; the little nuggets of cauliflower served with tahini, the moist green tabbouluh, the creamy aubergine moutable, the salty halloumi in pitta and the soft fava beans in a piquant lemon dressing, with a small glass of Lebanese white wine.

The sharp witted among you will note that all these were starters but to my mind this is the best way to eat Lebanese food. Ordering several small meze dishes is far preferable to the English way of choosing a starter and a main course.

But first up the obligatory silver platter of complimentary fresh vegetables and pickles, olives and chillies which you munch through to assuage your hunger while feeling ridiculously virtuous at the same time.

Then choose from the cold meze and hot meze sections which have a plentiful supply of offerings, and while I could eat them all, six dishes between two people is more than adequate, with the prices ranging from £2.75 up to £4.80 per dish. While predominantly vegetarian, the meat and fish options stretch from spicy chicken wings to whitebait. Choosing what to have though is much harder.

We finally settled on the zahra maqlia – fried cauliflower topped with sesame oil, parsley, garlic and lemon juice (£3.50), the foul medammas – boiled fava beans in lemon juice, olive oil and garlic (£3.20), the batat harra potatoes fried in olive oil, coriander, chilli and garlic (£3.20), the kellage halloum – grilled hallomi cheese in pitta bread (£4.80), the moutable – pureed baked aubergines with sesame oil, lemon juice and garlic (£3.50), and the tabbouleh with parsley, tomatoes, onions, mint, crushed wheat, lemon juice and olive oil (£3.90), and while you may have eaten good imitations of these dishes in the past, this is the real deal; simple, delicious and bursting with flavour.

So we dined in much more splendour than the ancient king we’d witnessed; chatting, nibbling and dolling out a spoon of each dish on to our plates, which all complemented each other beautifully and all for £29, a tidy bill which Macbeth and his stringent Scottish blood would have approved of no end.

Al-Shami is open every day from noon to midnight at 25 Walton Crescent, Oxford  
01865 310066 al-shami.co.uk

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