Al-Salam, Oxford

Perhaps they were over-stretched

It was a Saturday night and all of our first choice restaurants were fully booked with up to an hour’s wait for a table. Al-Salam was to be our saviour and they found my boyfriend and me a romantic table for two in a quiet spot at the back of the restaurant. Except that it wasn’t quiet and not in the slightest bit romantic. It was situated next to both sets of customer toilets, close enough to hear the toilet flush and hand-dryers, and also opposite the staff door to the add-on bubble bar in the next room, playing music at club level volume.

Dust? Anybody? No?

In between the toilets and the bar doors was the bubble-pipe preparation area, the smell of which hit us straight away. It was a chemically sweet and dusty sort of smell that didn’t agree with me at all. It wasn’t foggy with smoke, but just an overall thick feeling and smell that gave the place a seedy atmosphere. As soon as I sat down my eyes began to itch, soon afterwards I started sneezing and to top the allergic reaction my nose blocked and I had to breath through my mouth – attractive image, I know. The reaction I had wasn’t the fault of the restaurant, but it is something to be aware of if you decide to eat here.

During my allergic attack, we were handed the menus (read: the menus were plopped onto the table by a waiter who seemed as though he wished it was time to go home) and then left to our own devices for 10 minutes wishing we’d ordered 2 beers as we sat down. When the Lebanese beer arrived I was gasping but was disappointed with the local tipple which was, to me, too sweet and cardboardy tasting so I ordered some bottled water, which thankfully arrived at the table unopened.

Harvest Festival

What arrived next, with a thump and strop off, was a plate of what looked like a mix of vegetables that happened to be lying unused out back. We had some carrot sticks (usually welcome crudités when not warped), olives with stones in, those faded green chillies (normally seen strewn from kebabs on the pavement at 3am) and bizarrely a whole green pepper (completely intact apart from the stalk). I thought I should attempt a start on my first Lebanese meal and began to nibble on a carrot, happily munching away until I noticed something.

Private Parts

I was already feeling uncomfortable by the time I had noticed this thing, but we had already ordered and couldn’t really leave. As I looked up from our plate of veg, the door to the mens’ swung open and out trotted a couple of waiters, followed by a customer zipping up his fly (not many men managed to finished this task by the time they reached our table). Through the door, and inside the toilet area, I saw a door with ‘Private’ marked on it and one of those push-button keypad locks on it. Now, I don’t know if it’s just me, but that doesn’t strike me as very hygienic – perhaps I expect too much from where I eat? The kitchen was probably a sterile and healthy place for food to be prepared, but when your waiters are back and forth through a mens’ toilet, it doesn’t put your stomach in the right frame of mind.

The Main Event

The menu consisted of about 20 cold starters, 20 hot starters and 10 main dishes. We had been to Tapas bars before, which have similar menu layouts and always order far too much food, ending the meal with enough food to feed another 3 people. So, with restraint, we chose 3 starters, 2 mains and a portion of rice. The starters arrived and were gracefully placed on the table (read: … oh, I think you’re getting the picture now), we shared:

  • Batata Harra (potatoes fried with coriander, chilli and garlic) – very tasty and good spiciness
  • Hommos – at last something to dip the veg into
  • Kellage Hallumi (grilled hallumi cheese in Lebanese bread)

For the main course:

  • Shish Taouq (chicken with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil) – kebab off the stick and on a plate but good flavour
  • Kastaleta (lamb steak fried in garlic and lemon juice) – again a kebab off the stick
  • Rice – had bits in, can’t remember what they were but it tasted better than plain rice

Both these dishes had a translucent, creamy coloured sauce dribbled on them – it doesn’t take much to guess what I imagined that substance to be.

No, just the bill please

The food wasn’t bland or tasteless, but it was uninspiring and a bit of a disappointment. The waiters were suited and booted like interviewees for an investment bank and wandered around giving us the feeling that we were wasting their time by ordering food. Perhaps we didn’t order very well or perhaps our overall experience put a dampener on the night? Luckily, it hasn’t put me off trying Lebanese again and I have just been recommended another place in Oxford – each meal comes with live belly-dancing!

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2 Responses to “Al-Salam, Oxford”

  1. Ian says:

    Should have gone to Pizza Express.

  2. sam alsalam says:

    hope you give it another go ,I think that was once off.

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