Let me tell you something about stomach ulcers. But before I do, thanks to Declan Cashin for donning the bib, while I was having one seen to. Now back to my belly and the shock diagnosis that I had an ulcer.
The most sickening part was being told that ulcers are caused not by stress, but by a bacteria. In other words, nobody is going to sympathise about the immense pressure you were under, how overworked you were, how nobody cared enough to notice that you were suffering stoically, heroically even. A martyr.
Of course, I blame the job. How did the bacteria get into my stomach in the first place? They've been sitting there these past 12 months, writing postcards to their relatives: Dear Dymphna and Raymond, we are having a great time here in the Restaurant Reviewer's Gut. Last night we had a smoked crab amuse bouche, followed by brioche daubed with foie gras, followed by the finest fillet steak in Ireland. All washed down with a bottle of Pinot Noir. Dymphna, it was only divine. We've decided to stay here until someone puts the run on us.
Lay off the heavy food, my consultant said, after a good root around with his endoscope. He wrote me a two-page prescription. Make sure you complete the course. And absolutely NO alcohol. Blabbedy-bla-bla-bla, as they say in layman's terms. Soon as it didn't hurt to swallow I called my friend JC, hoping for a bit of tea and sympathy. I got neither. I am The King of Ulcers, he proclaimed. And speaking from experience, you'd better follow the doctor's advice.
Where do you take a heavily medicated teetotaller for lunch? Rotana, to be fair, has a broader appeal than that. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact it doesn't serve alcohol, it struck me as one of the most socially inclusive places around, falling somewhere between Beruit and Bundoran. There's been a strong Arab community in Portobello for decades now, it was only a matter of time before a Middle Eastern café opened here. Why did it take so long? On second thoughts, let's not go there. Let's just be glad it's happened.
Rotana is clean and bright and comfortable. There's a coffee bar, with a dessert fridge packed with pretty honey and nut dainties. To the rear, mezzes and hot plates are prepared to order. Arabic, French and English conversations collide, the local office crowd come for soup, the Arabs drink espresso and read the papers. Rotana would be a great place for eating lunch alone and for people-watching. Why had I asked The King of Ulcers to join me? If you think man-flu is debilitating, you've never encountered man-ulcer.
It nearly killed me, said the King of Ulcers, with a very grave face. That's terrible, I replied. I'd managed to order and eat a bowl of babaganoush, without him even noticing. It was slightly acidic and not quite smoky enough. You can't rush an aubergine, or they get bitter. Hummus is a safer bet. Other choices on the light bites menu included traditional lentil soup, fatoush salad with crispy pieces of broken pita, stuffed vine leaves and grilled haloumi cheese.
I didn't want anything too exotic, so I stuck with the vegetarian mezze plate. If the arse fell out of my world and I had to be vegetarian, Middle Eastern food is the only way to go for the variety of interesting textures and flavours. I'm talking spicy and fragrant, kibbled and crunchy, zesty and unctuous, smoked and fluffy. At Rotana they are fighting the good fight. The hummus was smooth and tangy, the tabouleh fresh and leafy, while the traditional fatayer pastry stuffed with spinach and onion was utterly delicious. There was more of the underperforming babaganoush and falafel that was a shade too dry for my liking. But overall the mezze was a tasty showcase of what Rotana has on offer.
The King of Ulcers had the kefta -- meatballs made with ground lamb, onion and parsley. They were deeply savoury, a vague mealiness was alleviated by a splash of garlic yoghurt. Served on a flatbread with implausibly fluffy Lebanese rice, it made for a substantial lunch, and though it made no medicinal claims, it appeared to revive my friend's sluggish appetite. He even insisted on dessert, piling his plate with nut, honey and sesame seed-based treats. The baclava definitely warrants a return visit, especially with some predictably excellent coffee -- or indeed Lebanese mint tea. Rotana opens early 'til late ... but hark! what's that deep rumble rising up from the earth's core? Why I do declare 'tis my ulcer-free belly answering the call of the manakeesh pastry. n n TYPICAL DISH: Lamb shish
n RECOMMENDED: Mezze
n THE DAMAGE: €35.70 for one starter, two mains, four sweets, two coffees.
n ON THE STEREO: Lebanese Pop
n AT THE TABLE: All walks
n WHAT TO WEAR: Jeans and a T-shirt
n DO SAY: Khalil Gibran is Lebanon's greatest export
n DON'T SAY: What about Keanu Reeves?