Maison Libanaise’s roasted cauliflower tastes like any normal cauliflower. Texture-wise, it’s that roasted vegetable middle ground of crunchy and tender, and it’s fairly mild to the taste. At first.
Then the flavors smack you in the face: first, heat from the chili, then the zest of cilantro, and then all those flavors and pleasant textures combine to be savory, spicy, sweet, and slightly smoky.
Now we get it. It’s no mystery why the roasted cauliflower is one of this Lebanese canteen’s most popular dishes.
Located just off the famous Mid-Levels escalator, Maison Libanaise is recognizable from quite a distance — its pumpkin-colored facade and towering three-story mural of a dark-haired woman with enviable volume to her waves look down at you, challenging passersby to try and not stare.
Its rooftop terrace, illuminated with strings of warm fairy lights, also make it one of the perfect places to grab a springtime al fresco lunch or dinner. Good news about that — the restaurant’s executive chef Jad Youssef, a Lebanese chef who has cooked in kitchens in Beirut, Oslo and London, has just introduced a spring menu that includes quail, flavorful mixed salads, and lamb, both cooked and raw (!).
That roasted cauliflower (HK$118) we mentioned earlier? It’s one of the chef’s star dishes, so it’s available all year round. It’s made using spicy harissa, zhoug, tahini, sumac, and a dash of dry lime. We’re impressed by how it can carry all those complex flavors, yet still retain the natural flavor of cauliflower so prominently.
So, now that we’ve covered the cauliflower (seriously — get it), let’s move on to the items on the spring menu. One of the lamb-based dishes, of which there are many, is the raw lamb dish Kibbé Nayyé (HK$188). It’s lamb tartare made with spiced bulgur wheat mixed with basil and roasted pine nuts.
We liked that it was slightly creamy — though that was aided by heavy drizzles of olive oil — and that the meat was not too gamey. There was a nice bit of added crunch from the bulgur and pine nuts, too. All in all, a strong starter to whet the appetite — but if you are even slightly squeamish about eating raw meat, then this one’s definitely not going to be for you.
Another spring item to join the menu is the Makdous Salad (HK$118), made with cold marinated eggplant, walnuts, spring onion, red chili, and mint. We weren’t feeling this salad as much as that cauliflower, though. The mixture was overly minty — we couldn’t really pick up on the flavors from the spices, which would have added more dimension to the dish. The marinated eggplant itself was nicely prepared — juicy, with just enough “bite” — but that overzealous sprinkling of mint took away from the vegetable’s natural earthy notes. Sad.
However, the seasonal specialty Quails Firré (HK$178), a plate of chargrilled marinated quails with pomegranate molasses, sumac, and allspice, was excellent. The meat was tender, with an intensely satisfying char, and we loved the spike of tangy sumac in every bite. You’d think that the pomegranate molasses glaze would cause the final dish to be quite sweet, but it wasn’t at all — the sweetness complemented the meat perfectly.
Another great dish was the Lamb Freekeh, a whole-roasted lamb shoulder served with smoked young green wheat grains. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the natural flavors of the lamb shone through, enhanced by a blend of seven spices and served with small pieces of fig. The wheat grains — that’s the freekeh — had soaked up all the juices of the meat and marinade, and were delicious and deeply flavorful on their own, but were outstanding when paired with the lamb.
Maison Libanaise also makes a mean hummus, a staple of its regular menu. For the seasonal menu, however, they’ve lamb-ified the traditional version of the dip with their Hummus bil Lahmé (HK$128, with warm pita bread). In addition to the original foundation of chickpea purée, tahini, and lemon juice, the hummus had an added dollop of spiced lamb confit on top of the serving. It was nicely seasoned, and we liked the extra bit of fat that the lamb confit brought to the already creamy hummus.
Our conclusion — if you and five friends have a particular fondness for lamb, then Maison Libanaise’s spring menu is sure to please. To share, the dishes would probably come to around HK$150 to HK$200 per head — not bad for a restaurant in Central, and particularly for a cuisine that we don’t see well-executed often enough in this city.
Maison Libanaise is at 10 Shelley Street, SoHo, Central.
Reservations: +852 2111 2284
Fri-Sat, 11am to 12am; Sun-Thurs and 11am to 11pm.
MTR: Central (approx. 5 minute walk)