If you have only ever thought of Lebanese food in the context of strip-lit, sticky-floored kebab shops, the warm and welcoming Mina Restaurant and Cafe Bar will make you think again. Houmous and falafel are familiar names, but Mina, which has been running in the heart of Cathays since 1990, goes far beyond those to produce a huge range of dishes from this often-overlooked region.
For a Tuesday night, it was comfortably busy, with a broader range of customers than its student-ville location might suggest. Red-painted walls and glowing candles helped shut out the busy street and for once someone had figured out how to use the volume button on the stereo, leaving the background music at a soft hum to complement rather than drown out conversation.
More than a bit bewildered by the array of choices on the menu, we happily submitted to the guidance of manager Biar Darwish. He said a traditional Lebanese meal begins with mezze, the equivalent of Spanish tapas, and seeing our blank looks at the 21 different types on the menu, he suggested we went for the mezze selection.
It was gorgeous. The warak enab (vine leaves wrapped around a moist filling of rice and vegetables) struck just the right note of vinegar balanced with soothing rice, while the falafel were perfect: crunchy but not greasy with a delicious garlicky filling of chickpeas and tahini. Generous helpings of creamy homemade houmous and its aubergine-based cousin, moutabbal, were ideal for dipping, and we were glad of the refreshing lemony tabboule salad to cut through the garlicky stodginess.
Although many of the mezze were vegetarian, Lebanese cuisine prides itself on its meat and Mina is no exception. Again plumping for the more is more option, my guest chose the mashwi mwshakal. It combines three of the menu’s traditional Lebanese dishes: shish tawk, lamb mashwi and mina kofta. Each one could convert even the most ardent vegetarian.
The mashwi turned out to be chunks of tender, just-pink chargrilled lamb and the shish tawk was a revelation. Chargrilled chicken breast marinated in lemon juice and garlic, it fulfilled the menu’s promise to melt in the mouth. Food envy aside, my Mina lamb was good too. Slow-cooked in a “mild spicy” tomato sauce, it was perhaps more like a straightforward curry than I would have hoped, but it was warming, comforting and complex in flavour.
Mina is ideal if you are going for a meal with a big group of friends. Shared mezze are a great way to start, and with simpler dishes like grilled salmon, sirloin steak and pasta in a cream sauce on the menu too, there is something for even the fussiest guest.
Prices start at £10.95 for a main and £4 for a mezze starter, so it is a bit pricey, but for perfectly-cooked meat, tapas-style choice and the prospect of sticky, nutty baklava for dessert, it is more than worth it.
Reposted at Capture Cardiff