Should you be in the mood for good quality Lebanese food served in opulent surroundings, then a visit to the Cedar Lounge is recommended. The restaurant in the Fairmont Bab al Bahr is an elegant, open space with high ceilings, polished floors and an enticing outdoor terrace. Despite being practically empty when we visited, the place still had enough about it not to feel devoid of all atmosphere.
The mezze selection was extensive; part of me wished that I was dining with a large group so I could order expansively, sampling a little bit of everything along the way. But alas, there were just the two of us, and after some deliberation we chose a few classic dishes: halloumi cheese with tomatoes, a somewhat bizarrely named "vine leaves sushi", fattoush salad and hummus with avocado.
The table was quickly furnished with a basket piled high with crisp pitta and triangles of warm, pillowy marqooq bread, a platter of olives, dish of tapenade and a sizeable bowl of raw vegetables, a few of which had seen better days. Nevertheless, this was a generous way to begin the meal.
When the starters arrived, the halloumi was the standout dish. The squeaky cubes of white cheese with their golden olive oil crust were lovely, especially when eaten with a mouthful of juicy roasted tomato.
Thankfully, the restaurant was not making a foray into Japanese fusion with the sushi vine leaves, which turned out to mean simply that the rolls had been cut into pieces rather than served whole. Most importantly though, they were very good. The moist rice was spiked with herbs and had a sharp, vinegary tang. A fattoush salad was tasty and refreshing: a portion of perky vegetables tossed in a nicely seasoned dressing and topped with croutons and hummus was, as you would expect, smooth, creamy and moreish. We did notice, however, the absence of the avocado promised on the menu.
We happily picked away at these dishes for a good half-hour. It came as something of a surprise, then, when our waiter cleared the empty plates away and announced that the main course would be at least another 25 minutes. This wait struck me as slightly bizarre and rather ill-judged, particularly as the restaurant was far from busy.
When it did appear, the size of the Cedar Lounge mixed grill certainly justified the Dh120 price tag (after starters it is easily large enough to feed two). This meat selection was served with roasted vegetables (nicely charred red peppers and sweet onions), rice and bread.
I tucked into the shish tawook first and was immediately glad I had. The cubes of chicken had been well marinated in yoghurt, lemon and spices, meaning that the meat remained moist even after being grilled at a high heat. I can't say that I was quite so keen on the other poultry offering, chicken kofta (minced chicken). The meat had an unfamiliar, not altogether pleasant texture and little flavour. The lamb version of the same dish was much better, the ground meat benefiting, I think, from a keener application of herbs and spices. A lamb cutlet was tastier still, succulent and juicy with just the right amount of fat.
While the quality of the food was high, overall the dish felt a bit dry. It could have done with a yoghurt dip or sauce, something to add a bit of moisture to this meat feast.
A selection of desserts went down well. Bite-size pieces of baklava left a heady, honey taste in the mouth and the kunafa pastry was also well done - crunchy and sweet without being cloying. Best of all were little pieces of halowet-el jibin: a chewy roll (traditionally made from milk and semolina) filled with a sweetened ricotta-style cheese and topped with a tangled pile of syrup-soaked orange peel.
And so we left, feeling thoroughly content. A dinner here may not deliver the best Lebanese meal of your life, but it certainly won't leave you feeling disappointed (or hungry).
Cedar Lounge, Fairmont Bab al Bahr, Between the Bridges, Abu Dhabi. For reservations call 02 654 3238. A meal for two, not including service, costs Dh374. Reviews are conducted anonymously and the meals are paid for by The National.