It has now been 19 months since I got on a plane or went anywhere more exotic than the Devonshire coast. At this point, really, I’m just grateful to be able to leave the house, eat dinner out, attend parties, weddings and meet friends and family anywhere that isn’t a glacial park bench. Isn’t everyone?
That said, after two days of wind and rain (classic British camping) I did find myself craving somewhere hot and exotic, and almost willing to brave the hassle of endless testing and risk of being quarantined overseas just to get some sun. Almost.
Instead, my partner and I opt for a trip to Paddington’s Little Venice, a pseudo Mediterranean – an East Londoner’s trip West always feels like a vacation. We head to Massis, an established Lebanese restaurant that has reinvented itself post-COVID and has emerged from the long cocoon of winter closure as a bright, glittering butterfly of feasting. It now describes itself as ‘Lebanese Food Reimagined.’ On a surprisingly warm evening we stroll along the canal past brightly coloured canal boats offering fish and chips, cheese or beers and busy riverside bars.
words: helena goodrich
Massis is tucked away in a two-tiered square surrounded by glittering office blocks, the lower ground floor houses office lunch staples like Pret and Itsu. Despite the city setting, Massis is a warm and cosy hideout amidst the concrete jungle. The outside seating is bathed in golden light and surrounded by plants, a perfect spot for a rare day of summer sun or a balmy evening. Inside you are greeted by a shiny turquoise bar, brightly coloured wallpaper resembling a Rorschach ink-blot test, cosy seating and great mood lighting, which all combines to create a welcoming atmosphere.
Service is attentive and friendly, no pretensions, with staff very happy to recommend dishes. It’s a mezze style menu with starters organised into cold and hot before going ‘On Grill’. I instantly want to order everything and we, perhaps ambitiously, choose four starters and two mains. Food arrives promptly and beautifully presented in colourful ceramic bowls. We opt for food ‘as it comes’ and our table is soon crowded with delicacies. First up, hummus, because, if you can’t get hummus right, what hope is there for everything else? Fortunately, it’s creamy, served with a sprinkling of paprika, a drizzle of olive oil and warm flatbreads. Aubergine moussaka, my favourite dish, is a generous serving of tender aubergine blended in a rich tomato sauce, which in my opinion goes with everything on the menu, whether it’s pulled beef, falafel or halloumi.
Freshly made cheese sambousek pastries and spicy potatoes complete the taster starter selection. The ‘reimagined’ aspect of the menu is that Massis have decided to add Mexican elements to the menu. I’m not usually a big fan of fusion food. If it’s done badly you end up with ingredients that should never have been put together, like going on a horrible date with someone you have nothing in common with. But it works. I order grilled halloumi, thickly cut and salty, which comes with small corn tortillas and an avocado dip. The owners previously ran a Mexican restaurant and also own a more traditional Lebanese restaurant and shisha joint in Mayfair so they are well versed in both cuisines.
My partner orders a classic mixed shawarma grill. As a pescatarian I don’t try this, but she informs me it’s delicious and a generous portion. More traditional options such a kofta kebabs or minced lamb with pitta bread are also available. There are more fish dishes than you might expect including calamari, grilled octopus or seabass with turnip pickles and plenty of choices for veggies. Supervisor Thomas tells me that they are planning on creating a tasting menu which will be great for greedy people such as myself who want to try everything.
The Mexican element continues with cocktails including classic and flavoured margaritas such as strawberry or chilli and a variety of Massis special tequila-based cocktails imaginatively named ‘Devils Tongue’ or ‘Envy’. The wine list is also a mix of Lebanese as well as French Spanish and Italian wines. We order Old Fashioned cocktails which are strong and punchy.
Supervisor Thomas speaks openly about the challenges the restaurant has faced, particularly with local offices continuing to operate at limited capacity. He arrived in the U.K. from Italy just before lockdown began. After Brexit as well as COVID he describes the struggles in finding good staff and their desire to create a strong team. On a Tuesday evening the restaurant is relatively quiet, staff laugh and joke together behind the bar, always a good sign, and Thomas describes being happy to be back at work after the long lockdown. Restaurants are such important melting pots for culture.
After dinner we pop to next door bar The Union for a drink and stroll down the canal to try and digest the enormous amount of food we have consumed. We also take home two large boxes worth of leftovers which we enjoy for lunch the next day.
It’s such a joy to be able to eat out again with friends and, in London, you can easily your way across the globe. Despite the obscure location I would return to Massis for the tasty, fresh food and the warm service. It’s perfect for a quick office lunch or after work dinner and drinks as well as a nice destination lunch or dinner location. It’s been a difficult eighteen months for restaurants, and with many people still working from home, the office lunch or post-work dinner has been somewhat lost. Many places are reinventing and redefining themselves – and I feel excited to see restaurants surviving and thriving once more.
Dinner and drinks for 2 around £50 (including lots of leftovers!)
9 Sheldon Square
London W2 6HY
Tel: 020 7286 8000