When the numbers listed beside dishes on a menu are heading towards 50 (not taking into account set menu options), you know ordering will take a while. Rotana is a Lebanese café just before the bridge in Portobello. It’s a simple place with Lebanese art and keffiyeh hanging on the wall, rattan chairs and dark wood tables. The menu really does feel endless, and on a filthy, wet July night (where for art thou, summer?) two cold and hungry women are easily distracted from the task of ordering by the smell of frying lamb and spices from the open kitchen. Wading through the lists of charcoal grilled kebabs, Lebanese salads, mezze platters, falafel sandwiches, manakeesh (Lebanese pizza), and specials, we finally settle on a mezze to share, plus two specials, one chicken, one lamb.
Our waitress smiles the patient smile of someone who’s been here a million times before and explains that we’ve ordered too much food. While this feels like a challenge (gluttony is high on our list of sins), we take her advice and change one main to a smaller lamb dish.
The arrival of the mezze (€13.90) confirms her theory. A large platter holds crispy falafel, soft inside and green with fresh herbs; there’s a pool of hummus and another of soft feta jewelled with tomato, olives and herbs; there are three kinds of sambousek, crispy fried parcels filled with lamb, cheese and best, a slightly bitter spinach paste. No wait, there’s more: slippery stuffed vine leaves sit with pickled chillis, cabbage and cucumber; a bowl of fatoush salad is a heavily seasoned mixture of chopped tomato, olives, lettuce and with strips of fried pitta bread; a pot of bitter sesame tahini dressing is there to dunk each of the bitesize pieces, and finally, phew, there’s an enormous pile of wafer-thin Lebanese bread.
It’s BYOB here, so we drink a bottle of Rioja we’ve brought. If we’d planned ahead, a punchy Lebanese red would have been better. The menu says there’s no corkage if everyone orders two courses, but it’s never mentioned and doesn’t appear on our bill.
Our next round brings a dish I’ll return for soon: Makloba chicken (€16.90). Like so many Middle Eastern dishes, multiple cultures claim it as their own, including the Lebanese, Palestinians and Jordanians. Whoever invented it, they’re doing a fine version here. It’s a one-pot dish, the base lined with slivers of potato and aubergine, topped with rice, roasted chicken and generous amounts of cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and other spices, then turned upside down on a plate and served with roasted cashews, herbs and yoghurt.
Lamb kebbeh (€7.90) are not such a hit. Four oblong nuggets of a lamb and bulghur wheat mixture are fried and stuffed with minced lamb, nuts and spices. They’re too hard and dry, even when dipped in more tahini sauce. A blip on an otherwise good meal.