RICHARD BATH is away, so this week I am stepping into his not inconsiderable shoes and taking his seat at the table.
Commercial Quay, 92 Commercial Street, Edinburgh
(0131-554 4000, www.fatma.co.uk)
Starters from £5.95, mains from £11.95, desserts from £4.50 Rating: 7/10
My first job was to identify a restaurant that our esteemed critic has not yet visited, which proved quite tricky. I finally settled on Fatma, a Lebanese restaurant named after its owner’s mother, and the latest addition to Edinburgh’s eastern Mediterranean and north African culinary scene.
Despite its location on Leith’s Commercial Quay, which for many has turned out to be the death row of restaurants, Fatma is immediately welcoming and the staff very friendly and helpful. Apart from its wonderful fresh flavours, the particularly enjoyable thing about this style of cooking is the convivial nature of sharing a bunch of dishes round the table, trying a bit of everything – far removed from our own traditionally solo endeavours, where each person tucks in to a plate of their own and hopes they like it. There’s nothing quite like reaching over someone’s shoulder to scoop up some of their aubergine paste with a makeshift shovel formed from a small triangle of flatbread. It encourages an informality rarely seen at the more traditional fine dining establishment.
The menu is split into starters/mezze dishes, main courses, steaks and grills, and with six in our party, half of us pescetarians, we were able to order a wide range of dishes to try. We could have done with a bit of guidance here from the waiters or perhaps some kind of buffet option (which there seems to be on the upcoming takeaway service).
At the same time that David Cameron and Angela Merkel were earnestly renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe, similar scenes were being played out here, with promises to order one aubergine-based paste, countered with promises to order another.
While Cameron and Merkel had long ago retired to bed in the Brandenburg countryside, we had finally come to a consensus, namely: falafel; hummus with lamb and pine nuts; purée of smoked aubergine with sesame tahini, lemon juice and mint; fattoush, a salad with lettuce, tomatoes, mint, sumac, onion, radish, peppers, olives and fried Lebanese bread; baked aubergine with tomato and chick peas; grilled haloumi with tabbouleh, olives and herbs; fava beans simmered overnight and mixed with tahini, garlic, lemon and olive oil; shrimps cooked in olive oil, with garlic, parsley and a touch of chilli; main course jumbo king prawns with saffron rice; and grilled skewers of chicken and lamb. We asked the waiters to bring it all together, though you can do the starter/main thing if you want. Lebanese flatbread and dips also come with all orders.
Turns out that the arguments and horse-trading (no – none of that here, thank you very much) were not in vain. I quickly realised, however, that despite having the arms of a chimpanzee, my position at the table meant I was unable to reach all the dishes. My other half – taller, fatter and more carefully situated – had worked this out in advance and was ideally placed, within an arm’s length of each plate.
I did manage to procure a delicious giant king prawn, wonderfully tender and cooked in a nicely piquant tomato and chilli sauce, as well as some grilled chicken and various mezze. I particularly liked the seriously garlicky shrimps, the moutabal (the smoked aubergine) and the moussakat batenjan (more aubergines but this time with chick peas in a tomato sauce). I find it quite remarkable how a mooshed-up bowl of aubergines, chick peas or fava beans can possess such subtle and refreshing flavours, despite having the texture of baby food. I was assured that the haloumi and falafel were very good too – and certainly there was no evidence to the contrary.
If you have had Lebanese wine before, you have probably tried a bottle from Chateau Musar – whose red wines Jancis Robinson has described as having “a Mediterranean character that is entirely its own”. I can certainly attest to that, and while it’s not really to my taste, it had both fans and foes around the table, who either loved or hated its rich, fragrant nature. Luckily there was also a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which suited me better.
Desserts. Probably Mr Bath’s favourite part of a meal. While the Middle East provides great sweets and pastries (Turkish delight, baclava), it isn’t my first choice for puddings. We ordered two of the four options to share, a Lebanese version of rice pudding that was like a cinnamon and pistachio panna cotta, which two of us liked, and one type of baclava – the syrupy filo pastry version had been decimated at lunch (perhaps my colleague had been here after all) as had the intriguing cake made with melted cheese – which I found a bit bland and a touch dry.
You can always tell the uninitiated to Lebanese or Turkish coffee. Instead of tentatively sipping, they throw the cup back like a regular mug of Joe, only to reel in shock as their mouth fills with silty coffee grounds. Unlike those lines from Norman MacCaig, “Swish up the dirt and, when it settles, a spring is all the clearer,” once you swish ... The fresh mint tea made for a more refreshing post-prandial beverage.
All in all, this was a good meal, though perhaps not the cheapest of the genre, and all pastes, spreads, grills and purées were studiously mopped up. As a sub-editor by day, my only serious complaint is a wanton disregard for the apostrophe and inconsistent spellings for the likes of hummus or homous on the website and “menu’s” – this from a restaurant whose home nation lays claim to inventing the alphabet. But the service was excellent and I can imagine Fatma will build a loyal clientele who will keep coming back, if not for the food then just for the welcome.