It is always a pleasure to discover a great new Guadalajara restaurant when you are not expecting it. In the case of Labne, it was more than unexpected – I was putting up active resistance to trying a new place for Sunday brunch, even though I adore Lebanese and other Middle Eastern food.
As it turned out, so did almost everyone in our group, which included two Mexicans, three Americans and one Ethiopian. And our love of “Arabic” food, we agreed, extended to Greece, Italy, Spain and even India.
Some would say Lebanese is the premier cuisine in this broad group. Beirut was once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” (due to its domination by France from the end of World War I through World War II), so cooking, intellectual repartee and arts such as fashion design are said to have reached unexcelled heights there before the city was buffeted by the civil war that began in 1975 and has been a factor since.
The two Mexicans in our party arrived at Labne a bit before its Sunday opening time of 1:30 p.m. and adventurously ordered the Platon for one – a varied platter of what might be considered appetizers, which includes the four “dips,” humus, tzatziki, baba ganoush and tabule; a couple falafel balls; two stuffed hojas de parra; a sambousak and a supply of pita triangles on which to spread the dips.
Incidentally, many bets are off here in regard to ingredients and naming. What I would call tzatziki (Greek, yogurt based dip), Labne calls Jocoque, in Mexican style, although the added ingredients are traditionally Middle Eastern. I assumed Labne’s Hojas de Parra were stuffed grape leaves, although hoja de parra can also be translated as fig or vine leaf and those at Labne did not appear to me to be grape leaves. In addition, the small triangular or half-moon shaped pie that I am calling sambousak looks and sounds like the samosa familiar from Indian restaurants, although, again, those at Labne were spiced Mediterranean style. I did not find anything on the menu that I could identify as the eggplant dip, which I call baba ganoush.
The Platon for one (180 pesos) was huge. It made a great appetizer for five of us to share and could have been a main course for one or two hungry people. The eggplant based dip was particularly exquisite, with a smoky undertone, although everyone else seemed most taken with the tzatziki.
Although Labne’s options for plato fuerte (main course) are legion – Gallina Rellena (stuffed chicken) for 105 pesos, Kafta (grilled, ground beef brochette) for 120, Falafel (fried balls of bean and garbanzo meal) for 120, etc. – almost everyone at our table, except the one vegetarian American, showed a complete lack of imagination by ordering what our Ethiopian friend recommended, the Shawarma. (We figured we had done the adventurous thing with the Platon.)
Nobody was sorry. Labne’s Shawarma is pita wrapped around a mixture of meat (your choice of chicken, beef or pork and lamb) that has been cooked with hummus, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, herbs and spices. It was generous in size – almost couldn’t finish it – and wonderful in flavor, although a bit too salty for my taste.
The medium-sized salad that accompanied my shawarma (most folks opted for french fries) was the highlight of the meal for me and I declared, perhaps with hyperbole, that it was the best salad I had ever eaten. It wasn’t just the small, tender cucumbers arranged on top, but the dressing – a mixture of unidentifiable ingredients that somehow made it light to the point of undetectable while still stupendously flavorful. It is possible that the high quality of the vegetables in the salad were what made it so good, and the dressing merely enhanced their flavor. Or possibly it was some secret, chemical flavor booster that I don’t even want to think about. Just kidding.
Labne’s drinks, including the non-alcoholic ones, were very pleasing and out of the ordinary, from imaginative mixtures of beer (some Lebanese beer), wine and fizzy water combined with various fruits and herbs to sangria to coffee and more.
Our waiter told us Labne has only been open in its current digs in the fashionable Colonia Providencia for two months and someone in our group said she had eaten there about a year ago, when it was a “hole in the wall” in a nearby location.
It is no longer a hole in the wall. While it only has about a dozen tables, it has a spare, elegant decor (and nice bathrooms along the same lines).
And once a month, according to management, Labne finds space for a night of Arabic dancing. If you phone the restaurant and give them your e-mail, they will inform you of the date. The night of Danza Arabe may require a reservation, although management said there is no extra cost for viewing the entertainment.
Labne, Cocina Libanesa (on Facebook), Calle Ottawa 1581, (33) 3817-0374. Open Tuesday and Wednesday 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 1 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.