Tony Kitous, founder of Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanais, would love to see Nigella publish a Middle Eastern cookbook one day.
It would certainly give a boost to his mission to make Lebanese food as popular as Italian in the UK. The Comptois family is growing, with a new restaurant set to open at London Bridge in mid-November.
Kitous tells Food Spark he is like a Lebanese grandmother with his restaurant group – hands on with all his babies – although his mother complains that while his siblings give her more grandchildren, he just delivers her more restaurants.
Founded in 2008, Comptoir Libanais, which means ‘Lebanese counter,’ now has 22 restaurants across Britain, including Manchester, Bath, Leeds, Reading, Birmingham, Oxford and Exeter. The aim is to open two to three new sites each year, and Kitous has already had requests to bring the brand to places like Newcastle, Liverpool and Brighton, as well as Paris and Switzerland.
He says he was shocked to learn recently that there are only around 160 Lebanese restaurants across the UK. His group, however, has been joined by some new players in 2018, including Paramount Lebanese Kitchen and The Lebanese Bakery – a fact that Kitous hopes will help spread the word about the cuisine.
Long term, he hopes to see 1,000 Lebanese restaurants from different operators populate the UK in the coming years.
“I love it when I see Nigella or Jamie Oliver or Deliciously Ella using all our ingredients or our dishes, and you go to Nando's and they have hummus, you go to Pret A Manger and they have some type of shakshuka. All those things I love, because that’s how we are gaining more popularity,” he says.
“It’s a food that is here to stay. It’s a simple food you can eat all day whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner. People can see it's vegetarian and vegan friendly. If you don’t want to eat bread, or you are gluten intolerant, or you just want to eat healthy, you can eat the dips with lettuce leaves or carrot.”
Specials, salads and sandwiches
The London Bridge site follows the familiar menu format for Comptoir Libanais with breakfast, all-day eats and dinner.
For breakfast, dishes include shakshuka – a classic dish made up of slow-cooked tomatoes, red onions and peppers mixed with parsley, coriander and garlic that is topped with a fried egg and crumbled feta and served with pita – man’ousha (Lebanese pizza) and a full Lebanese breakfast. It’s an area that Kitous wants to work on more across the group, with brunch menus being created for the weekends.
The all-day menu includes a selection of hot and cold mezze as well as dips and salads, from the more familiar baba ghanuj to the lesser-known jawaneh: chargrilled marinated chicken wings with garlic, lemon and pomegranate molasses. Warm Lebanese wraps will also be served with a Comptoir salad, along with marinated grills and tagines. Lunch is the most popular day part for the group.
Another popular eat is the Lebanese burger, made with lamb kofta, sliced halloumi cheese, pickles, tahini and garlic, all served on a brioche bun with a side of spiced potatoes known as batata harra.
London Bridge will also include its own specials like slow-cooked lamb shoulder for four (served with rice or couscous and garnished with dates, figs, apricots, sultanas and prunes) and marinated salt fish kebab.
Sweets will include a selection of baklava and a dark chocolate orange and cardamom tart. Kitous says it’s too early to introduce regional dishes on to the menu yet as the cuisine has only just started to gain some ground in the UK.
“People think in Lebanon there’s only hummus and falafel, but there are so many other dishes,” he adds.
For now, he would love to feature dishes like an aubergine salad with garlic, chilli, mint, lemon juice, pistachio, pomegranate and feta cheese; pan-fried aubergine sandwiches with halloumi; feta cheese with honey and sesame seeds; and halloumi with figs and rose syrup.
From the market and into the home
A point of difference at London Bridge is the addition of a souk, a kind of market found in Arab culture.
Kitous created it to help guests discover hard-to-find ingredients that are essential to make Middle Eastern food. These include spices such as sumac, za’atar, orange blossom, rose water, tahini, harissa and rose syrup; jams made from dates and quince; and sweet treats such as nougat, Turkish delights and baklava.
“All this is for me to introduce our culture and to get people to cook Middle Eastern food. With the souk, I want to enter people’s home and get them to understand our culture and food, and to make things like they would with other food on a daily basis,” he explains.
“And it’s actually very quick and healthy and cheap. You don’t have to break the bank balance to create a mezze for five or six people, you can do it for under £20. It’s all about sharing and small things.”
Kitous describes himself as a dreamer, but believes that Lebanese food won’t take as long as 30 years to get a grip in the hearts of UK consumers. It’s a cuisine that naturally has a large amount of vegetarian and vegan dishes, the spices are interesting and not just chilli-based, and it can be a healthy and light option, he says.
Affordable, not fine dining
The biggest challenge right now is continuing to ensure the cuisine offers value for money. Kitous admits Comptoir Libanais has had to face the same challenges as other operators, grappling with the rise of ingredient prices due to the weather as well as the weakening pound due to Brexit.
He also thinks supermarkets could do a better job of encouraging the usage of Middle Eastern ingredients, rather than just selling them in “tiny jars.”
“With za’atar, it’s like they think it’s saffron, and if you look at it, it’s almost more expensive than saffron. With za’atar, we sell it in big jars back home, in bags in fact as its fresh. You see harissa in tiny tins or tahini in Whole Foods or Holland & Barrett and they call it a superfood, but we have it on a daily basis. That’s the thing for me, I would like to see our food sold in nice big bottles at affordable prices because its food for everyone and food for every day, it’s not seen as caviar or fine dining,” he comments.
Kitous says he has been approached by major supermarkets to create a Middle Eastern brand, but felt the six-month lead time wasn’t sufficient.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t investing in new revenue avenues. He will be introducing an exclusive delivery service via Deliveroo soon, while next year he will launch a catering arm for weddings and parties.