A THUNDERY night in Sheffield town and what better way to escape than a trip to the Mediterranean?
Al Zahir is a Lebanese caf-cum-restaurant tucked away down quiet Carlisle Street in the industrial area round the back of Burngreave. As we run in out of the rain, cheery music from an Arabic TV station coming from a big flat screen on the wall greets us and the bright, clean and uncluttered surroundings are a reminder of some little place you once found on holiday.
Nothing fancy, just pine tables and chairs and big pictures of Lebanon on simple painted walls. At one end there is open kitchen with a chef working away on a griddle.
Our very pleasant waitress asks for drinks orders. No alcohol sold here, and no encouragement on the menu to bring your own, so we order soft drinks.
It's pretty quiet this rainy evening and our fellow diners are as multi-cultural as Sheffield itself, so no easy clues as to how authentic anyone thinks the food is.
No doubt they're all drawn here by a friendly welcome and good value. And the value is outstanding in these recession-hit times – most starters cost around 2.50 to 3 and most main courses range from 4.50 to 6. The exceptions are sea bass at 8 and king prawns at 10.
As well as our drinks we received a basket of warm flat bread and set about choosing from the menu. The starters are mainly hot and cold mezze dishes – the Lebanese equivalent of tapas and mostly familiar if you like Greek or Turkish food as well.
As there is no mixed mezze to order, we decided to get three dishes between two of us. We try houmous shawarma, a dish of tiny, slightly crunchy pieces of lamb surrounded by houmous, and batata hara, cubes of potato fried with chilli and peppers, both of which are pretty tasty. The potatoes reminded me strongly of the Spanish tapas dish patatas bravas, which I imagine shows how much Arab culture has influenced that country.
But the undoubted star starter is the motabel, a heavenly, spicy aubergine dip which scores highly on both taste and its lovely, almost silky texture.
The main courses arrive after a pleasant break and when mine arrives the waitress comments: "That's a big baby chicken!" Said bird has been spatchcocked – prepared so it is flattened out – before being grilled and it does take up a big proportion of a large plate.
The chicken comes with salad and houmous and it's delicious, the flesh tender and full of flavour, the skin with a hint of crunch from being well seasoned.
My partner Andy went for a mixed grill, which was a lamb and a chicken kebab and a lamb kofta – minced meat moulded round a skewer – which came with the same salad and houmous accompaniments as mine.
He loved the chicken and the kofta but thought the lamb pieces were too small.
Possibly we should have ordered chips or rice to go with it but the portions were very generous so it's not necessary unless you're really hungry.
Some of the other dishes do come with rice, anyway.
After that we weren't up for a real pudding so we had some lovely mint tea to finish the meal and shared a plate of baklava, the classic sweet flaky pastries filled with pistachio nuts sweetened with honey.
The baklava were great, which wasn't surprising as the Al Zahir also has a large shop and bakery next door. We popped in for a look and the range of food was incredible, with a lot of Asian ingredients as well.
We bought a little plate of baklava there for another day, as a reminder of a very pleasant and relaxing evening.
Our bill came to 23.50 all in.
Verdict: a lovely, welcoming place that does good fresh food at amazing prices.
Open: Monday to Thursday 11am to 11pm, Friday to Sunday 11 'til late'. They also do takeaways and home delivery is free with a minimum order of 7.
Al Zahir Lebanese Restaurant, 30 Carlisle Street, Sheffield S4 7LJ. Phone 0114 2755355.
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