A significant player in the restaurant repertoire in London for years, Lebanese food is slowly drip-feeding throughout the nation, bringing fresh and delicious Middle Eastern classics for all to share at tables in Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford, Manchester and Leeds, to name a few. Here, Produce Business takes a look at one newly opened outlet serving Lebanese food in London, the White Horse Lounge Bar in Hampstead Heath, to learn more about the cuisine and its fresh produce requirements
The White Horse Lounge Bar doesn’t look Lebanese and Hampstead Heath in north London isn’t particularly known for its Middle Eastern cuisine. Originally a traditional boozer [pub] and hotel built in 1905, the imposing iron-shaped, three-storey building stands on a corner site of a busy crossroads and features its original, ornate, listed ceiling, 1900s tiled floor and grand oak island bar along with soft Italian furnishings, wooden high and low tables, and roaring open fireplaces.
But it’s all exactly according to entrepreneur Sacha Shahnaz Kardar’s plan. This happy blend of Victorian splendour and slick yet comfy modernity is a metaphor for the food served there. Kardar is welcoming north Londoners into a warm, comfortable setting and introducing the joys of Lebanese sharing food to them, albeit in a slowly, slowly approach.
“I prefer pubs to restaurants; a warm and peaceful ambience is essential for any place you eat,” explains Kardar, director and owner of the Lebanese bar. “Lebanese food goes very well with all manner of drinks and it is nice to nibble on sambouk [cheese or meat rolled in filo pastry] or foul [broad beans with garlic and lemon] while you have a drink. I want my customers to feel relaxed, have a drink and try something new to eat, maybe. I often put little tasters out on the tables for people to try and they love it, even when they don’t expect to.”
The best things about Lebanese food, says Kardar, is the sharing aspect, which she calls an “ambience of sharing and togetherness” and the fact that it’s good for you. “Lebanese food is one of the most healthy in the Mediterranean and the high use of fresh fruit and vegetables also really makes it look beautiful,” says Kardar, who develops the menu with her head chef.
“We use a lot of vegetables in our cooking as essentially Lebanese food is a mix of hot and cold mezzes (which have a heavy salad and vegetable dip base) and stews. Aubergines, courgettes, chickpeas, okra, spinach, pomegranates, parsley and tomatoes – these are all everyday items that we use en masse and much more at that. We get pretty much everything we need from a local Lebanese wholesaler, as well as fruit and vegetables from our wholesaler in New Covent Garden Market, who delivers. We find it very easy to get what we need on a regular basis.”
The menu at the White Horse Lounge Bar consists of two mezze platters for Sunday lunch, as well as a traditional English roast beef option to keep everyone happy, plus cold mezzes, cooked cold stews, salads, hot mezzes, grills and side plates, such as olives and pickles.
“My aim is to make this a trendy pub where the food is exciting and inspired, for the locals,” shares Kardar, whose perfect meal is stuffed vine leaves, followed by ChichTaouk [grilled chicken with garlic sauce] and salad.
“It’s good to create a local place so people don’t have to go to Central London and can be nearer home. People don’t expect Lebanese food here and it’s great to share it. As I said, that’s the best bit about the food.
“Lebanese food will become more popular as people try it – I have created a really accessible and comfortable place for my customers to try Lebanese food – and hopefully, it will become their local.”
Relax, take a seat
The restaurant already has a following. When I visited on a Monday around midday, there were excited people popping in for lunch; some had just been looking for food and were thrilled to find something different, while others had obviously earmarked the place to try out and perched at the bar with savoury Lebanese pastries or ‘hot mezzes’.
The launch in October was packed with people trying out tasters of the menu, whilst sipping an orange campari cocktail. And it doesn’t take much to realise where the buzz surrounding the place is coming from. Not only did Kardar play a part in establishing and running the well-known eat-in deli chain Goodies in Lebanon, and the Sofitel hotel group with her former husband, she ran a her own pub in Beirut for four years.
On top of all that, she took the time and money to headhunt chefs with backgrounds in the top Lebanese London restaurants, such as Noura and Maroush. Her head chef, William Abisaada, comes straight from the former.
She has also had advice from friends in high places in the culinary world, but regardless, nothing ever runs as smoothly as it should and opening in such old premises brought its problems – it took three months and the services of Lebanese/Polish interior designer based in Paris, Magadian Biab, to knock it into shape, as well as a little patience on Kardar’s side.
“I fell in love with the place from the moment I saw it and I knew it would be perfect, eventually,” she recollects, with obvious relief and a little disbelief of her surroundings around her comfy felt chair. “But it was a complete mess and full of fungus and mould. It had been left to rot by the previous leaseholder and it ended up costing over 25% more than originally anticipated.
“It was a lot of hard work to get it up to a normal standard and then we redesigned it, sanded and repainted or treated all the original woodwork and really tried to make the most of the beautiful ceiling and intricate floor. This place is perfect because of its structure and character, but also it has a very large kitchen [around half the size of the pub floor, in the basement], which is essential for Lebanese food as it involves a massive amount of preparation and consistently large amounts of fresh vegetables that need space.
“I saw a vision of what I see now – a modern lounge, where you can chill out and eat good Lebanese food. It’s a mix of beautiful original features and exciting new food, along with warmth and comfort. That’s how I want to eat.”
Try Lebanese food for yourself
Where? The White Horse Lounge Bar, 154-156 Fleet Road, Hampstead Heath, NW3 2QX
When? 12pm-11pm Monday to Thursday; 12pm to 12am Friday to Saturday and 12pm to 11.30pm Sunday
What to eat? The mezze sharing platter is a good start at £12.50 and includes houmous, garnished with whole crunchy chickpeas; mutabbal, which is a smoked aubergine purée with fresh, crunchy but juicy pomegranate arils on top; crispy small discs of lightly spiced falafel with tahini and fresh tomato; and the best tabbouleh I’ve had in a while – fresh and zingy mint, parsley and cracked wheat with lemon and garlic. It was so refreshing and cleansing I could have made a stab at eating it forever.
What to drink? There are ales on draft and bottled beers, ciders and 12 different whiskeys, amongst a variety of spirits, Champagne and Prosecco by the bottle, plus a list of French, Italian and Chilean wines. I’d go for the cocktails at £7-8.50 a pop.