Lebanese food in London is boring. There, I said it.

Its like a McDonalds fillet-o-fish.
Satisfies a craving when you need it, but isn’t mind blowing or particularly interesting. Mostly good quality food, stable, predictable, whatever.

Being pleasantly surprised by a restaurant is one of the best feelings in the world. In Abu Dhabi I discovered that Lebanese food isn’t as bland as it seems. Chef Emad Zalloum took me on a whirlwind tour of Lebanese food at his restaurant Sambusek at the Rosewood Abu Dhabi.

The first indication that this is not just any Lebanese cuisine is the Fattoush. Just look at it. Beautiful.

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A far cry from fried pitta, the bread with infused Zaatar, freshly layered and baked at the restaurant a short while earlier, was phenomenal.

I’m usually not a fan of hummus unless it’s freshly made by Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan, but this wasn’t ordinary hummus. With a tangy taste, the Hummus Akary is lifted to new heights with pickles, tomatoes, chopped parsley and pine seeds.

Next up was Mutabbal. Again, I’m not a fan of smokey taste of Mutabbal. Chef Emad insisted I try it, so I gave it a go thinking I’d take a bite, smile and pretend it was great. Shockingly, it really was great. Oh the emotional confusion when you’re expecting to eat something that you KNOW you don’t like, and suddenly the world is transformed. This version of Mutabbal is Mutabbal Ajami. The tangy tomato sauce and walnuts really bring this usually rather mundane eggplant based dish to life.

Hummus

I attempt to try chicken liver once every five years. This version was by far the best I have ever tried, which is pretty good since I’ve never really liked chicken liver at all. The pomegranate sauce complemented the chicken liver very well. Could this be a case of enjoying the sauce more than the chicken liver? Perhaps. But it tasted great, so I’m not complaining.

Chicken liver thing

A touch of thyme on the tomato with Halloumi was excellent. It wasn’t too strong, not rubbery at all and the chef explained that this is because of the ingredients he uses. The Halloumi is made according to his specifications by a supplier he knows and trusts.

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The next plate I worked my way through was essentially a plate of protein. The chicken was smoky and tangy at the same time, the Lamb Cutlet didn’t look very moist but was juicy and done well.

Grill thing

The Arayes was spectacular. The Arab version of pizza, it was bread stuffed with minced lamb, tomato, parsley and pine seeds. The bread was not oily or over done. The dish was crispy and delicate, and the taste of the meat really came through.

My favourite on this plate was the lamb chop. Excellent flavour, crispy outside and light inside.

A word on ambiance. I had a great meal indoors since Abu Dhabi was baking in sunshine when I was there. The wait staff were excellent and the guy who poured tea for me after lunch helpfully poured three times so I could snap the moment. After lunch I spent some time on the balcony which is a wonderful place to relax when you don’t need air conditioning to stay alive. Here is the view over the water:

The view

Chef Emad Zalloum spent some time talking through his ethos and the story behind his food. He has been at the Rosewood Hotel in Abu Dhabi for four years, after they poached him from the Burj Al Arab. An innovator by nature, he knows exactly where each one of the 1,008 ingredients he uses comes from (seriously, he’s counted. No messing with his ingredients!), and believes that you can make Lebanese food even more interesting by innovating. He’s tried many different ways of doing things, thinking of what contributes to taste and producing fascinating ideas. He spoke about smoking hummus with cedar wood (how very Lebanese), creating Kibbeh with foie gras and how experimenting with ingredients led to his excellent and unique eggplant Mutabbal with walnuts and tomato sauce.

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And so it turns out that Lebanese food isn’t so boring after all. For a truly innovative experience, Sambusek is the place to go. Hummus and Mutabbal have taken on new meaning for me. My only problem is having to go all the way to Abu Dhabi to find satisfying Lebanese food.

About Gem Hunter Zohra

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Zohra runs Halal Gems, the curated guide to halal dining. Their interactive magazine has reached the Top 10 on Apple’s App Store in 18 countries. She produces and presents her own TV show in the UK, The Curious Foodie , on BMTV (Sky Channel 845).

Zohra’s passion is transparency in the food chain, and she encourages people to ask ‘Whats in my food?’. Her background is in strategy and innovation, across the telecoms, media, technology, entertainment and non profit sectors.

Zohra holds an MBA from Cambridge University, and lives in London, England.

Twitter: @zkhaku