Pastures new...We’re in Pitsmoor to try out a restaurant called the Levantine Cuisine, writes Jo Davison.
We’re no strangers to the area; we drive through here every day and we’re regulars at the Mangla curry house just down the road.
But apart from hummus and tabbouleh, we haven’t a clue about Levantine food. We’re on a culinary adventure awaits, which is exciting but at the same time, a bit daunting. I’d guess this is how my parents felt when they sat down to their first Chinese.
What is even more unsettling is that, as we pick up our menu to another world, we’re in such familiar surroundings. The restaurant is set in an old pub and apart from a few Middle Eastern details - fringed bolster cushion on the banked seating, elegant hookah pipes on the bar and a scattering of exotic pots and pictures, it still looks exactly like one.
It’s some years since the Tollbar Inn on Pitsmoor Road served pints, though; it was empty for a while and was then converted into Babylon, an unlicensed Levantine restaurant.
The current owners, Palestinian brothers Jafar and Ziad Abualzeet and Fadi Alandari, who is from Syria and is also the chef, took it on as a going concern and reopened a month ago. Once again, it is unlicensed, for religious reasons.
It is the first restaurant for Jafar an Ziad; they own a shop-fitting store on Attercliffe and also are wholesale importers of herbs, spices, olive oil, dates and olives from farmers in Palestine. Fadi and his brother have another restaurant, it transpires - Rowsha in Walkley, a Lebanese.
We sit at one of the rather too modern smoked glass tables with high-backed leather chairs, nibble on a bowl of free olives and open the menu to find an explanation; Levantine cuisine is the traditional food of the Levant region in the Middle East, known in Arabic as the Bilad Al Sham. The region covers Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and lies at the crossroads of three major continents- Asia, Europe and Africa.
And as we scan through the starters - a dozen cold, 19 hot - it starts to become clear just how much of a crossover there has been. In ancient times there were wars aplenty; sadly there still are in some of those lands. But in culinary terms, there was marriage and harmony.
There is so much that is familiar. Stuffed vine leaves, feta cheese, moussaka and yoghurt tzatziki from Greece, haloumi cheese we’ve had in Cyprus, Turkish shish kebabs, Moroccan sesame paste, hummus and lamb meatballs, Egyptian falafel chickpea croquettes.
Many ingredients we know and love, from olives to walnuts, aubergines to spinach; they are here and our souls soar. Everything sounds simply delicious. The only problem we’re going to have is one of restraint.
To the sweet and helpful waitress’s delight, we deliberately pick dishes we have never had before; moujaddarah, a huge mound of smoky, soft crushed boiled lentils and rice topped with crispy-fried onions - for him and makdous, baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts and garlic with a zap of lemon and cumin for me. Both come with hearty side salads and a basket of flat-bread, which is so flat it could have been steam-rollered, and very light.
We add splashes of the most stunning pale green Palestinian extra-virgin olive oil and can’t eat fast enough. The flavours; the textures; wonderful. Plus there’s tons of food and the dishes are £3 and £3.50 apiece.
My dainty silver pot of £1.50 sage tea - there was a stem of real sage in there - makes the perfect accompaniment; far better than a glass of wine, I find. The husband’s mango lassi, £2.50, is sweet and scented and clearly freshly-made. The main courses arrive promptly; slow-cooked Lamb Kousi (£7.50) for me and Chicken Levantine Special (£9) for him. We have a £3 bowl of Foul Medamas on the side - beans boiled with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.
My ultra-tender lamb on the bone - Fadi says he cooked it for four hours - is scented with herbs and coriander and sits atop a fabulous portion of rice, laced with textural surprises by way of toasted almonds, pine kernels and cashews. It could have done with a bit of sauce, though. Still, my husband’s Levantine Special had plenty; I left him the tender chunks of spiced chicken breast and nicked some of the sharp, fresh-tasting tomato puree laced with coriander.
Both were packed with flavour, but the foul was the most memorable dish. Broad beans in a bean puree infused with Mediterranean meets Eastern flavours, it had a deeply rich, savoury taste. Very moreish, if you excuse the pun.
Our only disappointment? That it’s now 9pm and there’s no one else there but us. The place deserves to be packed.
Over a glass of mint tea to settle the stomach and a little plate of honey and pistachio-filled baclava, spelt baklawa at the Levantine and the only available sweet that night, Fadi tells us the restaurant does get busy at weekends; customers are usually Lebanese and Yemeni. “We don’t get many English, we think because there is no alcohol served,” he says.
Our bill came to a cheap £31.50 for a what was indeed a culinary adventure. A memorable one.
Give your liver a break and your tastebuds a treat; forget the lager and lime for a night and head for a Levantine.
Levantine Cuisine, 208 Pitsmoor Road, Sheffield S3 9AY. Tel: 0114 2701200. Open: 4pm-midnight every day of the week. Parking: large free car park. Cards accepted.
My star ratings out of five: