Al Hamra is a restaurant with balls. Quite literally, if you examine item 57 on the menu: lamb’s testicles. In English cuisine, these parts of the lamb are euphemistically called “fries” but at Al Hamra, there is no hiding the true nature of what is on the plate. Not that I was quite brave enough to find out, but next time – for sure.
Because Al Hamra, located in London’s bustling Shepherd Market, is one of those restaurants that you’ll want to keep coming back to. It’s one of the most established Lebanese restaurants in London, having opened in 1984, and the clientele is mostly global and affluent.
Despite the native patronage, rest assured that this place isn’t dry: there’s a comprehensive wine list of mostly Lebanese wine, which is generally more robust and fruitier than its European equivalent – not dissimilar to an Australian wine – but still eminently drinkable.
It’s always reassuring to see Lebanese people at a Lebanese restaurant, but unfortunately, you might also find a few members of what we could call the ‘alternative Mayfair’ set: generally speaking, young, loud, eccentrically-dressed and harbouring the mistaken belief that they are somehow trendsetters. The sort of people who might well work in television: at any rate, they seem pretty fond of broadcasting.
However, you can find these types anywhere, so don’t let them put you off. Dive into the incredibly comprehensive menu instead, as there’s plenty to keep you entertained: also of the non-testicular nature. As you’ve probably gathered, the bill of fare is above all authentic and simple: the sort of food you will find all over the Middle East. And in the spirit of that, it’s best to stick to the classic dishes.
We started off with some hummus, moutabal of courgette, and aubergine Fattoush: all from the cold meze selection. Everything comes with a seemingly bottomless supply of pillow-soft Lebanese bread; arguably the very best thing that this already excellent restaurant makes.
Hummus, perhaps because of its ubiquity, is one of the hardest things in the world to get perfectly right: a bit like a boiled egg. Yet this strikes the best balance yet between the creaminess of chickpeas and sharpness of lemon. We deliberately chose the unadorned hummus so that there was nowhere to hide, but you can equally get it topped with all sorts of things, including lamb or parsley.
The plain version passed the test emphatically. You could in fact go here to eat nothing apart from hummus and bread, and still come away feeling that you’ve dined like a king.
The moutabal of courgette – another staple of Lebanese menus – had a fantastic smoky flavour, where the balance of ingredients was nothing short of perfect; taking you straight into the dusty back alleys of Beirut, where the dinners linger late into the night as silver platter piles onto silver platter.
Finally, the aubergine salad: stunning as well, but not quite up to the same stellar standard as the other two dishes. Maybe it’s because the aubergine is fried before being combined with the salad ingredients – the key component of Fattoush being toasted bread – but the end result produces a lot of liquid, turning the bread in question somewhat soggy. It goes with the territory, but the texture won’t be for everyone: especially with the addition of olive oil.
Personally, I believe you can never have too much cheese, so it was no surprised that the grilled halloumi with black seeds was a highlight. Again, there’s nothing much that’s done to the food here, which only serves to emphasise the quality of the ingredients.
If you’re really Lebanese, at this point you would probably order some grilled lamb or chicken and consume that gently for the next five hours. But to tell the truth we were already slightly full – and as an unusual experiment, we decided to continue in the same vegetarian direction by ordering just a couple more meze: one hot, and one cold.
The hot choice was – no surprise – cheese rolls: deep fried filo parcels of yet more halloumi with parsley. As hot as the Bekaa Valley inside, but addictively delicious, with no hint of grease whatsoever. Cutting through that was our second choice: the tabbouleh salad, full of vibrant mint and lemon flavours, with just the right amount of garlic. Like everything else we ate, simple food, flawlessly executed.
The authentic way to finish the meal is with Lebanese coffee, which has the look and consistency of pond water – but looks can be deceptive. It’s essentially similar to Turkish coffee, with the grounds settling at the bottom (so sip carefully) and a strong, sweet cardamom taste. It goes perfectly with baclava – another Turkish export – but with a lighter syrup, which is what makes this baclava Lebanese.
Shepherd Market is a curious area close to Piccadilly, with quite a few self-consciously kitsch establishments that have crept in over the years. But this isn’t one of them: it’s a genuine slice of Lebanon in London, where the quality of ingredients is what stands out. That means you can order anything from the menu with confidence. And I mean absolutely anything…
Al Hamra, 31-33 Shepherd Market, London, W1J 7PT, England.
Tel: +44 (0)20 7493 1954
Located in Shepherd Market in the heart of Mayfair just north of Piccadilly, Al Hamra is a short five-minute walk from Green Park Tube Station on the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines. Open Monday to Sunday from midday to midnight.
Type of Restaurant: Lebanese Restaurant
Price Band: Medium to high
Insider Tip: A reliable place if you’re eating late, when everywhere else might be closed or not taking bookings.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8.5/10
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.