To the trained eye of a food critic there are one or two telltale signs that all is not well in a restaurant. Dirty menus (you're supposed to choose from them, not eat off them), animal droppings (shocking if they're from a mouse, mind-boggling if they're from an elephant), and general wear and tear (especially a man-shaped hole in a thin wall) are some of the more obvious ones. So when a number of things caught my eye at Abdel Wahab - the Lebanese restaurant in Souk Qaryat al Beri - I prepared myself for the worst.
Firstly, I noticed a couple of flies buzzing around the dining room: hardly damning evidence, but not ideal in a Lebanese restaurant where lots of open mezze plates will soon be adorning the tables like little housefly helipads. Secondly, the head waiter brazenly yawned like a waking Rip Van Winkle when we asked him for a table. Finally, when he showed us to our seats, there was an unsightly stain on the tablecloth. Not the best of starts.
I have been to the original Abdel Wahab restaurant in the lively Achrafieh district of Beirut, and can vouch that my first impressions of that restaurant were infinitely more positive. There was a welcoming urgency about the waiting staff there, who seemed keen to get you fed as quickly as possible, and then feed you some more. Not one of them looked like he'd just woken up after a 20-year kip, and everything in the restaurant was clean and tidy. One of the speciality dishes was fatteh with aubergines - a gloriously comforting splash of thick garlic yoghurt covering crisp flatbread and soft, tender and smoky vegetables - so I was determined to see how the dish translated to this Abu Dhabi outpost. The waiter, now apparently fully awake and alert, took our orders and the dishes began to arrive as soon as they were prepared.
It began with a basket of hot flatbread and fresh hummus, as Lebanese meals often do. In addition there was a bowl of rocca and thyme salad, which we'd chosen instead of the ubiquitous tabbouleh. The salad was suitably light and refreshing, yet there was far more thyme than rocca, which would have been much better the other way round. A plate of crumbly shanklish Lebanese cheese was mixed with chopped onion and tomato, and drizzled in olive oil to provide further moist creaminess alongside the hummus.
Then came the kibbe orfalieh, which almost always tells you whether a Lebanese restaurant is any good or not. Kibbe nayeh is raw lamb, which has been pulverised with cracked bulghur wheat into a pink meaty paste, and kibbe orfalieh is a spicier version of the same. It should only be made with the freshest meat and it should have been pummelled over and over again into a state of glossy smoothness by a chef with borderline homicidal tendencies. It has to be said that this kibbe orfalieh was excellent: fresh, just the right consistency and gently brought to life with a subtle blend of spices.
I was just starting to be won over by Abdel Wahab, but then the next dish arrived. Remember, I'd been keen to try the fatteh with aubergines for the unique silky texture and flavour of the dish. Instead we were given a plate of fatteh with chicken, which suggests that the waiter was still asleep when he took our order after all. The dish was sent back and we picked at a plate of chicken livers while we waited for the dish that we actually asked for to turn up. The chicken livers were very good, however, soft, yielding and bathed in a syrupy pomegranate sauce. But by the time the correct fatteh dish turned up, it was far too late - we were full and finished.
The early signs had been ominous, but things had improved markedly before the eventual gaffe that marred our visit. The truth is that there's plenty of difference between the original Beirut version of this restaurant and its Souk Qaryat al Beri counterpart. The former is an energetic and enthusiastic venue set in an enclosed courtyard that helps to add a sense of occasion. Yet this Abu Dhabi location is like a morgue in comparison, albeit a morgue in a newly built souq. It's deathly quiet, clinical and painfully soulless. Indeed, the only life we encountered in the restaurant on our visit was a couple of flies buzzing about the place. And that's enough to make anyone yawn.
Abdel Wahab, Souk Qaryat al Beri, Abu Dhabi, 02 558 1616. Average cost of dinner for two people Dh200-300.