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Sep 12, 2009 03:26 AM

chez marcelle, blythe st, london

this small (and clean) restaurant is run by grandmotherly marcelle almost single handedly, so dishes come to the table erratically.

limster, greedy girl, j fores (and company), myself met for a meal here. the consensus: mezze a lot better than the mains. indeed, i thought both the foul dishes excellent: one was was a riff on muqqala, this time with onions and the other was a butter soaked mudammas with brown fava beans and mashed chick peas. not all the mezze found favour with everyone though - i think that greedy girl didn't much like the labneh (i thought it standard).

the eggplant and meat dish with rice was the least popular main, but i really liked the shish taouk - nice char and not dry at all (excellen toom to boot) - and the lamb kefta. i suspect that marcelle's kebabs will always beat her other dishes, but i'll need to eat there a few more times before definitively coming to that conclusion.

bottom line: charming and certainly better than the al dars, randa's and ranoushes. doesn't obviously have the depth of an ishbilya kitchen, but certainly more homey to make up.

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  1. The bean mezze were also my favourites (really liked the longer cooked and deeper flavoured foul muqqala, which was different from the fresh and lighter version at Ishbilla) but I also have to put in a good word for the smoky moutabel/babaghanouj.

    1. Just to update this after far too long a down time...

      I went to Chez Marcelle with a Maronite friend of mine yesterday to basically remind myself of the restaurant's quality while putting it to the test. When I proposed the place earlier in the week he had no idea what it was until he asked his grandmother who was immediately amazed that Marcelle was still in the kitchen. Apparently his grandparents used to take him there whenever they would pick him up from primary school!

      We showed up at around 3pm on Friday with high hopes largely spurred by his grandmother's comments that this place has "the best Lebanese home cooking in London." It delivered. It delivered so fantastically that not only was the food amazing, but Marcelle remembered his grandparents after something like 10 years and has now hooked him up with advanced Arabic classes at the Maronite Church.

      We ordered an assortment of mezze and a single main to share. We also had two bottles of Almaza and a glass of arak each as more food came. When we ordered essentially a meat tasting menu we were convinced by Marcelle to substitute the sujuk for the fatoush. This was perfect.

      The fatoush was literally the best I have ever had and my mate declared it the best in the world to Marcelle herself. It was an intensely flavored salad of cubes vegetables intermixed with mint leaves and crunchy bread pieces. The whole mountain (it was a pretty huge portion for two) was covered in sumak, olive oil and other spices. Absolutely fantastic and something I will order every single time I go.

      Other mezze were the hummus topped with meat, the arayes and patata harra.

      The hummus was simply excellent freshly made hummus topped with smoky fried lamb. Delicious and capable of annihilating your entire loaf of bread in the hunt for a last scoop.

      The arayes were extremely crispy (and not the paper thin version you'd get in some higher end places) meat pastries packed with a well-spiced lamb, pine nuts and parsley mixture. Flavorful with a nice soft crunch texture combination that still held up to multiple bites without collapsing. Rated by my friend to be excellent home style arayes; the thicker bread casing is essentially the stuff of home cooking while high end joints would have a more paper thin outside layer.

      Finally, the patata harra was another highlight of the meal. Perfectly cooked cubes of potatoes maintained just the slightest bite to them while they were cooked in what seemed like cumin and chillies. The cooking was absolutely spot on and while this dish seems extremely simple I would also imagine it is quite difficult to perfect. The potatoes are not pre-boiled and so any cooking and softening occurs through pan frying. It's quite spicy for a Lebanese dish and Gujarati potato shak was actually my closest possible comparison.

      Our main was a casserole of lamb mince and aubergine which is apparently a cornerstone of Lebanese home cooking. Despite the world's love for mezze, most home cooked Lebanese food revolves around these casseroles of sort, though their representation in Western restaurants is absolutely minimal. This is not the case at Chez Marcelle where the dish of the day is almost always a casserole. Served with perfectly cooked Lebanese rice with vermicelli, the dish was extremely flavorful and the aubergine (skin included) was essentially melt in your mouth. It was fantastic.

      The two higher end araks are both very good, btw. Arak is basically rakki served with less water and which arguably has a little more flavor.

      Desert and coffee (free though I do not know if that's normal) consisted of an entire pot of Arab (Turkish) coffee and an assortment of baklava, dates and dried apricots. That coupled with our chat with Marcelle rounded off an excellent meal.

      This place demands more business that it is receiving. On the walk back my mate declared it better than Ishbillia which he frequents because the owner is a close family friend. I think that's sign enough that Kensington Olympia is not at all hard to get to from anywhere in Central London (despite the fact that the District Line seemingly takes 30 minute breaks in between each train to the place) and that the prices are literally as low as a local bog standard Lebanese restaurant almost anywhere in London. Also, I saw some complaints about the sevice time, but we didn't really notice any such issue. I could see it becoming a problem if the place was packed though. It's pretty much a one woman show.

      3 Replies
      1. re: JFores

        looking back at our first review, i see we were charmed but not blown away. p'raps the trick is to go when its a bit emptier. your post certainly makes me want to go back again.

        btw, just to be pedantic, we ought to note that ishbilya is in fact syrian owned and not lebanese.

        1. re: howler

          Is it? The family that owns it is apparently Maronite and I think they're from both sides of the border.

          I went to Chez Marcelle again today and I am now officially back to my usual "below the poverty line" status so similar visits probably won't be happening anytime soon but here goes...

          This time around we overlapped a few dishes (such as the hummus and the amazing fatoush. We also drank arak again, but skipped the beer.) The new dishes that we tried were the weekends' special of stuffed grape leaves and the daily special of chicken kofte casserole with tomatoes and potatoes. We also tried the makdous and the sambousek with cheese.

          The makdous were fantastic and were by far my favorite part of today's meal. They might even be my favorite mezze dish at Chez Marcelle excluding perhaps her divinely ordained fatoush. Her makdous consists of small pickled aubergines sliced and then stuffed with an extremely flavorful puree of walnuts. It's spicy and delicious, but the spice seems to come more from raw garlic than any chili or pepper. All of this is rounded by a luscious oiliness and the strong flavor of quality olive oil.

          Sambousek were perfectly cooked little pasties of sort with a tasty cheese mixture. The portions a bit small (4 per order), but they're tasty.

          The two mains today were both excellent. Grape leaves are stewed together with chunks of lamb in olive oil before they're served in a casserole dish. Despite being soft and quite well cooked they retain their shape, they don't unravel and they each have a pleasant individual texture and flavor. Also, the broth that they're immersed in is heavily redolent of lamb, olive oil and a touch of cinnamon all of which complements the lamb chunks and the grape leaves very well.

          Chicken kofte casserole was similarly excellent, though quite comparable to the previous aubergine one. I preferred the aubergine one, but this chicken one was still good enough to keep me eating even though I was extremely full. Again, perfect rice and the dish was served with a pot of yogurt which you could mix in as you ate it. Nice overall, great char on the kofte and the tomatoes and the potatoes were perfectly cooked.

          Coffee, desserts and good conversation were all on the house.

          I really recommend that more people get out to Chez Marcelle for its Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunch hours. The food is excellent, Marcelle's attention to detail is great(and a big part of why she still has virtually no significant help in the kitchen) and the environment itself is extremely warm. You could almost look at this as a Lebanese Di Fara of London because this woman will not be cooking forever. She is already looking for potential ways out, but her unwillingness to compromise on quality has not allowed her to hire any subsitutes even for the weekday lunch times which she has been forced to close for.

          1. re: JFores

            >Coffee, desserts and good conversation were all on the house. <

            The word schmoozer comes to mind. :-)

            Thanks for writing about this place. It sounds like a lunch is much better timing than a dinner. London-eating is full of people loving the food but hating the service so I'll pop in one day for a lunch. One poor soul had to wait an hour for his starter and another hour for his mains. I'm sure he was there for dinner.