Hungry Lawyer: Maison Libanaise, a welcome addition to the Middle Eastern restaurant scene

Maison Libanaise was opened this year by the Black Sheep restaurant group, which tends to focus on niche concepts that appeal to that specific Hong Kong demographic that revolves around Central, SoHo and Wan Chai. Personally, I am not a fan of all their outlets. I find SoHo-based Ho Lee Fook gimmicky and the menu incoherent, while Chom Chom, also in SoHo, is too crowded and aggressive, like somewhere Patrick Bateman from American Psycho might frequent.

On the other hand, Burger Circus on Hollywood Road is a nice update of a 1950s era American diner with excellent burgers and milkshakes. And, the group’s branch of New York-based Carbone in Lan Kwai Fong serves hearty Italian food and a deliciously rich signature lemon cheesecake, with an ambiance that truly makes you expect Frank Sinatra will walk in at any moment.

reI was therefore not automatically sold when Maison Libanaise launched with a soft opening last February at the space formerly occupied by the much loved Life Café. Nonetheless, after my initial foray during that soft opening period and several meals later, I am pleased to report that Maison Libanaise is serving great Lebanese food and is a most welcome addition to an underserved Middle Eastern food market in Hong Kong, late night kebab shops notwithstanding.

The restaurant’s ground floor has been smartly fashioned into a grab-and-go for hurried SoHo and Mid-Levels residents on the way home from work or the gym. The takeaway menu is simple, consisting of varieties of protein, choice of wrap or salad, sauce and a few sides. This is certainly a boon to the SoHo takeaway scene but, for me, coming to Maison Libanaise is all about sitting upstairs in the colourfully painted dining room or on the al fresco rooftop.

On my last visit, two of us shared two cold mezze (small plates akin to Spanish tapas), one hot mezze and one of the larger plates with an order of homemade pita bread (HKD38) to help absorb it all. For the cold mezze, a classic Hummus Bi Tahini (HKD48) was creamy and delicious, dusted with a mild chilli powder and garnished with a pool of olive oil in its centre to add to the rich taste of the usual chickpea sesame paste blend.

Hummus and pita bread

An absolute standout was the other cold dish, an Eggplant Fattoush (HKD98, pictured above). Fattoush is a salad containing toasted or fried pieces of spiced flat bread known as za’atar croutons, combined with mixed greens and other vegetables such as radishes and roasted tomatoes. To these typical ingredients, the version at Maison Libanaise adds sweet onions, fresh mint leaves, pomegranate seeds, roasted eggplant slices and a baba ghanoush-like roasted eggplant paste.

The end result is a salad that is both delightfully fresh with the crunchy pomegranate seeds and spring-like mint and at the same time rich and savoury with the crispy flatbreads, roasted eggplant slices and creamy eggplant dip. I will definitely order it again on my next visit.

Pan fried haloumi

For the hot mezze, the Pan Fried Haloumi (HKD98) is served in its own small iron skillet still piping hot. Usually made from a mixture of goat and sheep milk, the haloumi cheese at Maison Libanaise is honey glazed and topped with a cooked date and semi-sweet dressing. The combination of the sweet glazing with the naturally salty cheese and the fresh off the skillet softness of what can be a very chewy cheese made this haloumi a cut above the norm.

Half portion of zaatar fried chicken with labneh

For larger dishes, Maison Libanaise is known for their chicken skewers and roasted cauliflower, both of which are indeed very good. My favourite; however, is the Za’atar Fried Chicken (HKD198 or HKD108 for a half portion). This dish consists of a whole deep fried baby chicken accompanied by a small portion of pickled vegetables and delicious, creamy sumac flavoured labneh – a strained yogurt with the whey removed.

As an antidote to sometimes too sweet Korean fried chicken, the chicken here is crispy and savoury on the outside without being too dry on the inside. The crevices of the thick breading are flavoured with a subtle spice mix that is further enhanced when dipped into the smooth accompanying yogurt sauce. I would definitely add this variety to a list of top five fried chicken dishes in Hong Kong.

My only quibble with Maison Libanaise is the seating on the otherwise lovely rooftop balcony. The restaurant does not ordinarily take reservations, but despite arriving early on my most recent visit, everyone was cramped into one communal table while most of the other tables remained empty. I didn’t complain but others did and the staff, to their credit, did listen and adjust. That said, I’d certainly suffer the crowd again to enjoy the food.

Maison Libanaise: 10 Shelley Street, Central (Google Maps)


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