Matthew Norman enjoyed the meze at Al-Shami, Oxford. Photo: JOHN LAWRENCE
Matthew Norman visits Al-Shami in Oxford.
On any reliable list of Things You Really Don’t Want To See in a Restaurant, this one would hardly challenge such contenders for the top spot as the extravagantly leprous waiter, Tony and Cherie getting jiggy at the next table, or the kitchen staff being led away in handcuffs by a Health and Safety SWAT team. None the less, a place would have to be found for any kind of politico-philosophical blurb on the menu.
Whenever I encounter a reflection on world affairs, life, the universe or anything else unconnected with food and drink, the petulant voice in my head shrieks “Oi, you’re a cook. So cook, and leave the thinking to Wittgenstein”, and I metaphorically start lacing up the Doc Martens.
Every iron rule has its proving exception, of course, and one presented itself last week when on settling to write this review, I glanced at the back of the menu. “We are frequently asked about the restaurant’s name,” writes owner Mimo Mahfouz, explaining that Al-Shami refers to someone from the vast area of the Middle East known prior to the First World War, among other names, as Greater Syria. “In that region, people of different ethnicity, culture and religion lived together in tolerance and respect. I have always wanted our restaurant to reflect those values, to be a place of hospitality and peace.”
Within minutes of reading this, news broke of Marie Colvin’s death in the Syrian town of Homs. This is not the page on which to pay tribute to that war reporter’s courage and talent. Suffice it to say that, where on another day Mr Mahfouz’s words might have irritated me as bland utopianism, today they seem starkly poignant.
In avoidance of any nauseatingly glib segue to a critique of his business — which may be the oldest Lebanese outside London, having opened in 1968 — let it bluntly be stated that Al-Shami is a marvellous little restaurant which realises his ambitions.
Admittedly, maintaining peace in the Oxford suburb of Jericho doesn’t strictly require the presence of United Nations blue hats. A core clientele of undergraduates and junior dons is unlikely to start re-enacting scenes from the older Jericho whose walls Joshua brought tumbling down. But hospitality is a rare commodity in British restaurants, and the welcome and service from various chatty young chaps was an utter delight.
With its gold-painted mirrors, mini-chandeliers and ornate jugs, the room lies at the more muted end of the Arabesque gaudiness spectrum, while the gleamingly white walls lend it the aura of a hotel dining room (which it is; there are rooms available upstairs) in a Mediterranean coastal town. It also smelled wonderful, with the mingled aromas of grilling lamb fat and spices sidling in from the kitchen.
“Oh my giddy aunt,” said my friend as a waiter deposited the free bowl of salad vegetables that typifies Lebanese hospitality, “look at these prices.” Here was an array of mezze, hot and cold, at under or just over £3, while a short wine list featured Château Musar, the luscious Bekaa Valley red, at no more than cost. Beyond dispute, this is a labour of love.
At such prices one can go a bit crazy with the ordering, and we did. Best of a glorious bunch was sujuq — tiny, deep red zeppelins of Armenian sausage, full of savoury heat, succulent and devilishly moreish. As Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons would put it: Best. Sausages. Ever. “Among the nicest falafel I’ve tasted,” cooed my friend over one of four large, crisply fried balls of ground chickpea and broad bean. Moutabel, that smoky purée of aubergine, lemon juice, garlic, yogurt and sesame oil, was fantastically fresh. Kellage halloumi saw that salty, waxen ewe’s milk cheese served semi-melted inside triangles of warm pitta bread, and was thoroughly delicious. So were chicken livers, fried to the ideal juicy, faintly gooey finish, and properly doused in lemon juice.
Any Middle Eastern restaurant meal apes the old saw about upper-class eating habits (breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper). Almost all the energy goes into the starters, and it decrescendos from there. We could have stopped after the mezze, and left sated and happy. But research dictated a pair of main courses, and without quite matching the preceding splendour, these too were impressive. Grilled baby chicken (four legs, curiously, and no wings; what are the geneticists getting up to in Oxford labs these days?) doused in strong chilli sauce (farrouj mashwi), had the correctly alluring chargrilled twang. My friend’s strips of lamb marinated in vinegar and spices (shawarma lahme) came in a rich, creamy, savoury sauce. The fattoush, princeliest of Levantine salads, zinged with lemon and sumac as it should.
In its understated, artless way, this is a magical neighbourhood restaurant, partly for the quality of the cooking, but more than that for its warmth, generosity of spirit and the hospitality mentioned in Mr Mahfouz’s oddly touching blurb. “We have been blessed with many loyal, regular customers,” he writes, and there he is too modest by far. It is those who live within easy reach of Al-Shami who should feel blessed.
Al-Shami, 25 Walton Crescent, Oxford OX1 2JG (01865 310066); al-shami.co.uk
By Matthew Norman