In a city where so much of the food and beverage industry is governed by large groups, it is so refreshing when a humble, family-run business comes along.
I personally never visited the old Zahra, but it is my understanding that it was the place to go to for Lebanese food. After years of serving authentic, traditional Lebanese dishes, the owners – Lebanese themselves, of course – needed a rest, and closed down in 2006.
The owners’ daughters, having grown up amidst the action of their parents’ restaurant and sick of not being able to find anywhere with quite such delicious and authentic food, decided to open Zahrabel Lebanese Private Dining Club towards the end of last year.
With the same authentic dishes (the parents are back in the kitchen, after all), and a gorgeous, cosy setting, Zahrabel exudes a homely, comforting feel from the moment you enter. The interior is designed by the old owners’ son, who is an architect by trade, and who sourced most of the décor from Lebanon.
The set menu, which changes fortnightly, offers a selection of cold and hot mezze, of which you can either choose six or 10 items, depending on how hungry you are. Unable to narrow down the menu to only six items, we chose the Ashra Full Set Menu (10 items).
Starting with the dips, we adored the Jos Mahrouse, a spicy nut-based dip that is apparently only found in the northern region of Lebanon. According to diners who frequented the old Zahra, they have searched for this dip far and wide across Hong Kong for the past eight years with no success, until now. Whilst the babaganouj was wonderfully rich and smoky, just as it should be, we were slightly let down by the hummus, which lacked just a little bit of flavour, although perhaps this was only in comparison to the other very flavoursome dips.
The Fatoush, a crunchy salad drizzled with a lovely sumac-based dressing was light and refreshing and paired well with the grilled haloumi. Whilst the cheese was inevitably salty on its own, the sweetness of the roasted red pepper confit was the perfect complement, leaving us sad that there was only one piece each.
Similarly, I could have eaten at least five of the Fattayer. These delicious parcels filled with spinach and pine nuts were lovely and moreish, wrapped in perfectly crumbly pastry. Had there been any more, I wouldn’t have turned them down, but given the amount of food that was still to come, I was eventually grateful for my single piece.
Whilst the Kousa b’il Laban – zucchini stuffed with rice – was wholesome and comforting, with delicate yet satisfying flavours, it was Zahrabel’s non-vegetarian hot mezze that truly shone. I devoured my helping of Prawn Sidon – deliciously fresh bite-sized prawns sautéed in an incredible spicy tomato and garlic sauce. If you love garlic as much as I do, you’ll adore this dish.
The Chicken Elmina was also heavenly. Marinated in a lovely yoghurt and mint sauce, with a citrusy tang, the chicken was succulent and tender, almost as if it had been cooked sous-vide.
One of my favourite dishes of the night was the Lamb Trablous, consisting of super-tender pieces of lamb cooked in traditional spices. The rich, spicy flavour for some reason reminded me of Christmas, making it gain even more points in my book.
Everything was served with baskets of warm white and whole-wheat pitta bread to mop up every last bit of deliciousness.
Finally, we were served bite-sized servings of date biscuits and baklava with a glass of refreshing mint tea. Though sometimes Middle Eastern desserts can be overwhelmingly sweet and sickly, these were just right and the perfect size to finish off a remarkable (and filling!) meal.
The set menus are priced at $380 and $520 respectively (note that the Setteh (light) menu is not available on Fridays or Saturdays). The restaurant classes itself as a ‘private dining club.’ This label doesn’t mean to exclude people; the aim was initially to welcome all the loyal patrons from the old restaurant, as well as new ones, and encourage people to feel part of a community that cares about food as a “celebration of life…[and] the sharing of joy.” The restaurant therefore accepts advanced reservations only, and membership can be granted via the website.
For an all-round delicious meal with service to match, I definitely know where I’ll be going when I’m next craving Lebanese, particularly now that I’m a member of the club!
Zahrabel Private Dining Club
25/F, 235-239 Hennessy Road