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Al Barmaki

As anyone who lives here realises, most of the restaurants on or around Brussels’ Grand' Place are tourist traps. You know them by their giant photos of mussels and fries with descriptions of the dish in three or more languages. Walk on by, because there’s a surprising gem of a restaurant just around the corner. Al Barmaki is not only Belgium’s first Lebanese restaurant, but it also has more than 30 years under its belt and a loyal clientele.

My first impression is positive, based on a warm reception and the dining room’s intricate Moorish decor and cosily busy atmosphere. Our server leads us to a table at the back where my only complaint is the number of mirrored walls. Other than that, my partner and I are pleased to be at a roomy corner table decked in all-white linens, while soft rock music sets the tone for what is to be a really enjoyable evening. Here’s the catch with a non-touristy place, though: The menu is half in French, half in Arabic. I recognise things like hummus, tabbouleh and falafel and all sorts of grilled and skewered meats. But the rest is a mystery, so we’re relieved to find they offer mezze, a selection of several small dishes to share between two (€55).

We decide to pair this with a bottle of wine from the region: Château Kefraya (€35). I’m not familiar with Lebanese wines, but if this bottle is representative, the mountainous country produces very good vintages indeed. This particular red has a rich body and complex flavours like prune, raspberry and a hint of tobacco. We enjoy the first glass with a bowl of black olives and pickled peppers.

Out comes a basket of flat bread and a whole procession of little dishes. My favourite is the aubergine caviar, a smoky dip made of roasted aubergine, which my partner succinctly describes as having the taste of “peated whiskey”. Our favourite, though, is the hummus for its nutty flavour and creamy, whipped consistency.

We’re also bowled over by the deliciously simple white cabbage with lemony garlic vinaigrette. The tabbouleh, too, is a tasty and refreshing salad of parsley, tomatoes, bulgur and mint. Four light and fluffy balls of crisply fried falafel are scrumptious, and even better dipped in earthy sesame seed sauce.

Herbs and spices are a recurring theme: Fresh mint turns up in the salads, cinnamon inside the little beef-and-pine-nut-filled pastries. Another pastry is stuffed with soft white cheese and fragrant oregano. As for the grilled meats, the minced lamb is soft and juicy in a mixture of mint and onion. The chicken couldn’t be more tender, either; it’s coated in lemon and paprika and grilled to perfection.

We are grateful to Al Barmaki for making our first introduction to Lebanese cuisine in Brussels a very pleasant one. We settle the €94 bill over two coffees and agree to return the next time we’re in the neighbourhood.

67 rue des Éperonniers, 1000 Brussels; tel 02.513.08.34; www.albarmaki.be

This article was first published in Flanders Today

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