Middle Eastern sharing plates at their absolute best
Surely by now it’s safe to say that we’ve all got used to the notion of small sharing plates. Gone are the days of ‘I’ll have the soup and Jeffery will have the prawn cocktail’, and dining out no longer sits somewhere between grab-and-go, or having to invest in three course affairs.
We finally seem to have embraced a more relaxed style of casual dining – perhaps a little later than our friendly European neighbours, but we’re getting there. The Spanish are experts with their tapas plates and pintxos on sticks, but that’s more of a grab, graze, glug and move on type of thing.
“Perfect for tearing, dipping and wiping, making sure that every bowl is left so clean it barely needs a wash”
It’s the Arabic cultures who arguably mastered this way of communal eating (which is why there’s alwaysa few Middle Eastern-inspired dishes on small plate menus.) Eating is part of the Arabic culture and a part its very soul. It represents so much more than just filling your belly between tasks. It’s something to make time for and a way to show love and hospitality. Mealtimes are a reason to sit together and talk with friends and family, guests, colleagues and even a way to turn strangers into something more.
It’s also the meaning behind the name of Hale Village’s new Lebanese restaurant – Karam, because the owners wanted to find a word to symbolise their spirit of hospitality and communicate what they’re all about in simple terms. It’s perfect, because if you put Karam into Google translate, it also brings up words like ‘hospitality’, ‘kindness’, ‘municipality’, ‘open-handedness’ and our favourite, ‘vineyard’.
We like the sound of the claim on their website; ‘our aim is to bring you a slice of Beirut to Cheshire in a fully immersive Lebanese experience,’ but what does this all mean in terms of the food?
Karam has taken over the old Cote restaurant site on Ashley Road. Everything from the generously sized and very comfortable velvet chairs to the tapestries on the wall, the cushions, the shiny brass light fittings and the crockery have all been sourced especially for the restaurant from the Middle East.
Karam’s menu has been developed by Mohamed Aqeed, who has worked in some of London’s top hotels where he attracted the attention of the Saudi Royal family, who asked him to cater a family wedding, no less. To read his menu, guests have to remove it from a giant envelope (tempting us to announce ‘and the winner is...’)
You’ll find all the favourite cold mezze dishes such as hummus, the famous aubergine dips of moutabel and baba ghanouj, muhamara with blended walnuts, roast peppers and oil, pickled vegetables and stuffed vine leaves, but perhaps not quite as you know them from mass produced inferiors. Everything at Karam has been made by hand from scratch, as it should be, including the fresh, chopped salads and hot pitta bread.
You’ll also find a range of traditional hot mezze dishes such as hummus kawarma, the smooth chickpea tahini paste having been pimped up with toasted pine nuts and shredded lamb fatayel. We’ll be honest, it isn’t easy to choose, but we particularly recommend warm cheese sambousek – typical Lebanese savoury pastries filled with a melted feta, halloumi and parsley centre.
We also loved manakesh, loosely like a Lebanese version of a pizza. It’s warm, freshly baked flatbread with a range of toppings including halloumi and sujuk; homemade spicy Lebanese sausages. We dried a version sprinkled heavily with Karam’s own za’atar spice mix; a typical condiment made with dried herbs, sesame seeds, salt and other spices. It’s intensely perfumed and not for the faint hearted, but does go incredibly well when nibbled at alongside a good bottle of red.
It’s easy to make a meal of the mezze and leave it there, but you’d be missing out on the chance to try Karam’s range of luxurious tagines (chicken, lamb kofta meatball, vegetable, or seafood) or something from their charcoal grill. We loved chewing on some deliciously charred and marinated lamb chops as well as perfectly seared marinated, butterflied chicken breast with homemade garlic sauce.
Karam’s food is all about flavour; chillis have been chosen for their smokiness or fruity qualities. Lemon and pomegranate molasses add punchiness, while garlic and tahini add smooth base notes and chopped herbs add freshness. Pickles cut through rich meat and slow cooked sauces and we kept the gorgeous silky and creamy labneh which came with our mixed mezze starter to reset our taste buds after trying something spicy.
The sheer range of meat and vegetable dishes means that so many different tastes can be catered for - whether you fancy a quick mid-week meal for two or a longer family celebration. Karam’s authentic Lebanese menu (plus the servers, who really couldn’t do more to make you feel welcome) has given Hale Village a new dining experience which really does define Middle Eastern hospitality and their love of sharing good food.