The first time I ate at Al Aseel was for a quick weekend lunch. I actually had no idea it was located right next door to Luxe Bakery in that gorgeous sub-divided cottage on Missenden Road. I barely remember the last time I visited a Lebanese restaurant. All I recall was a heap of deep-fried food and a sweaty belly dancer at one of those little themed joints on Cleveland Street. I'm so used to seeing Middle Eastern restaurants decked out in more traditional garb as opposed to the belly dancer-free contemporary fit-out of Newtown's Al Aseel.
Opening the menu for the first time was a little overwhelming for me. I couldn't help but be dazzled by the rather large selection of delicious-sounding offerings. With so much I initially wanted to try, the fried kibbe was a good place to start. Four perfectly-shaped footballs of spiced minced meat wrapped in kibbe and crushed wheat, fried until as bronzed as a Bondi tanorexic. No slouch in the flavour department but nothing to get overly excited about either.
Unlike the lamb shank that came as melting and tender as ever, spiced up with typical Middle Eastern flavours and a side of ghashwet al-ruz, rice laced with browned minced meat and nuts. Great stuff made even better with the complimentary pickles and flatbread.
My second visit ended up being a work-related one. It was my suggestion we go to Al Aseel for our work end-of-year-slash-Christmas-slash-Hanukkah dinner; a chance to try more from the menu. A trio of mixed dips - hommos, baba ghanouj and labne with deep-fried flat bread - got the ball rolling. All quite standard and tasty but the addition of dried mint through the labne wasn't a great hit. A little unexciting was the arnabeet, slightly floppy florets of cauliflower with tahini sauce as a flavour booster.
Char-grilled lamb is almost always a winner in in my books so I was glad a plate of lahem mishwee made it to the spread. Marinated chunks of lamb, severely dry and overcooked except for a few of the pieces with onion, parsley and a garlic sauce. Well done meat-eaters would have been pretty happy with the longer chewing time the lamb required.
The monek sounded good on the menu - Lebanese sausages with lemon and pomegranate syrup. In the flesh it was a tasty huddle of chipolata-like sausages swimming in oil and a sedimentary layer of tangy pomegranate molasses. Once mix up and spritzed with lemon it was pretty decent.
The hands-down star at the table on that particular evening was the grilled haloumi. Just look at it. Glistening with olive oil, caramelised and tarted-up with pomegranate molasses. Should have ordered two serves. Hold on, we did.
The calamari was also a bit of a hit; char-grilled and lightly doused in sweet chilli. Sadly the two of us that ordered the samka harra didn't finish it and didn't think much of it. Grilled barramundi fillet topped with a patterned squiggle of mildly spicy tahini sauce and pine nuts. Way too much of the tahini in ratio to the overcooked and very strongly-flavoured fish. I was actually doubting it was barramundi as I've never tasted it as fishy as we had here. A third visit is unlikely.Al Aseel189 Missenden RoadNewtown 204202 9550 3194Open 7 days 11am-10.30pmwebsite