I have passed this establishment on many occasions as it’s nestled next to one of my favourite buildings in Leeds, the Corn Exchange, but it’s always appeared to be purely a takeaway counter.
A look at the website told me that potential customers are invited either to eat in or take away, so I thought that I would give it a go. The weather was unseasonably warm for February in Leeds, pushing 17c, so what better day to sample the delights of Ottoman food. Being Ottoman doesn’t mean that it’s prepared on top of a storage chest cum sofa, but that it is food which originates from the Middle East, especially along the Silk Road.
Whilst perusing the online menu I was seduced by the promise of lamb chops, a favourite of mine as this particular meat seems to absorb the taste of whatever spice or marinade it is treated with, rather than just get coated in it. On arrival I was told that the electronic bill of fare was a tad out of date and that there is no menu as such.
There were a couple of boards on the wall with dishes listed on each but nothing spectacular and mostly wraps. The chap who was doing the serving, cooking and waiting on table all by himself asked if I would like something more substantial and whether I would prefer to eat in. I said that I would on both counts, so he suggested I try a sampler with a range of house specialities. I thought that this would be an ideal way to see what they had on offer and so I agreed. I had a Lebanese Tea to accompany it. The food was £8 and the tea £2. I was told to take my tea through the red door at the side of the serving hatch and he would deliver the nosh when it was ready. I duly obliged.
The red door was opened from behind the counter by an electronic button giving an air of forbidden pleasures to come. On entering the stairwell and climbing to the first floor I felt as though I had been transported to the set of one of those 1940s black and white films, where Sydney Greenstreet, dressed in a sweat-stained white suit, would speak Arabic to the local men in Fez hats who were doing shady deals, and the suave American hero rescues the woman who has been abducted to be married against her will to the Sheikh who had seen her at an embassy party. Although that was the theme of the decor, sadly there was no sultry damsel in distress, just a young guy chomping on a massive burger. Being English I sat at the opposite end of the long communal dining table and stared at my phone until Mr Multitask delivered a wooden board containing lunch, and what a lunch it was!
The board was full to overflowing with house specialities. The base was a portion of coated sautéed potatoes. They were covered in a generous portion of chicken pieces drizzled with yogurt, and proudly sitting on top of this lot a Kibbeh. This meant that I had my lamb after all as, for the uninitiated, kibbeh is minced spiced lamb coated in bulgur wheat, shaped to resemble an egg and then deep fried. Delicious. On one side of this melange was a light salad dressed with yogurt and mint and featuring a dolma – stuffed vine leaf. Thank goodness for something light!
Playing on the other wing of the board were three dips: a hummus, a yogurt-based mousse and a tomato concoction which didn’t give its name. These dips were augmented with segments of Felafel – ground, deep fried chickpeas. Finally a piece of flatbread folded to look like a table napkin was added. A wooden knife and fork were also provided in case I wanted to eat in the western way rather than the eastern. The bread had to be folded up as it would otherwise not have fitted onto the board. This truly was a feast and the variety on offer meant that it didn’t become boring, and I enjoyed every mouthful. I am not a big fan of Lebanese tea as I don’t take sugar and it comes pre-sweetened. The added mint gives it a pleasant taste though. There are canned drinks available as alternatives.
I realise that it is not in our psyche to order from a restaurant with no proper menu but our multi-tasker, despite having to do everything and there being several customers to cater for, was happy to discuss the food available without making me feel rushed. Give it a go; you might just find a new favourite dish.
The only downside to the experience was that I learned that Caravanserai’s sister establishment, Cafe Moor in Kirkgate Market, had closed. I really hope that the Caravanserai venture lasts for years to come as it’s not so much a feeding place as an experience. We will only find out as time goes by, so here’s lookin’ at you, kid. Yes, I know that Casablanca is in Morocco but give me a break here – it is still North Africa.
Article first published by Leeds Living on 27th February, 2019