Elma, Leamington Spa, 8-10 Augusta Place, Leamington Spa CV31 5EL (01926 257 879). Dinner for two with a bottle of wine. Closed Mondays.
This restaurant is good for: fancy dates, a graduation meal, and Mediterranean food fanatics
From the outside, this small, modest restaurant, hidden away from the hustle a bustle of Leamington’s parade, looks relatively unassuming. And yet, stepping over the threshold, one is struck immediately by not only the rather ornate and inviting décor, but also that there is scarcely a free table in sight. It would seem word has spread that Elma offers some of the best Eastern Mediterranean food around. Admittedly, it took some Trip Advisor nosing to learn that such a popular restaurant was on my very doorstep.
The restaurant owner greets us warmly as if we are regulars - family members, even. We are led to a small table near the back of one of Elma’s small “living-room”-esque spaces. The service is at once efficient, but personal, with no sense of us being just another customer on a conveyer belt. We are encouraged to order one of the 3-course set menus, which, with some rough mental calculations, I decide is decent value for money. For the keen carnivores, the meatier set menu of the two (featuring a seafood starter, and steak) was £36.
Set menu 1: 3 courses, £26 per person. [For parties of 6+, 10% service charge added]
Starter: Hot and cold mezze platter to share. Tabbouleh, hummus, falafel, grilled halloumi, baba ganoush, borek, sucuk, tzatziki, feta cheese, beetroot dip
Choice of one main: Mixed grill, Lamb stew, Moussaka (n), Imam bayildi (v)
Dessert: Selection of baklava, kadayif, candy-floss, ice creams
We’re presented with an impressively large and varied sharing platter, displayed slightly haphazardly on a wooden board. (A brief explanation by a waiter as to what each component was wouldn’t have gone amiss). The feta and hummus were light and fresh; the beetroot dip vibrant and flavoursome – but the crispy, feta and spinach-filled borek was undoubtedly the star of the show. The baba ganoush was, unfortunately, overpoweringly smoky.
For the main course, we opt for the lamb stew and the moussaka from the four choices. Both arrive with a flourish, though the former looks far more appetizing than the latter, which could not altogether be differentiated from a Taste the Difference Sainsbury’s ready meal. The lamb is beautifully presented in a copper dish, with a side of rice and, randomly, fresh whole chilies. The meat is tender, moist, and dripping with flavor, whilst an array of stewed vegetables perfectly compliments the richness of the lamb. The moussaka rather pales in comparison; the meat is tender but strangely gray and unappetizing, and feels heavy from the copious visible layers of oil. The cheese is slightly rubbery in texture, though the taste is a welcome addition to the blander meat it is concealing. In short, the moussaka wasn’t a patch on its lamb competitor.
The desert platter is prettily presented, but notably sparse in comparison with the hefty starter (though I’m not sure how much more we could have fitted in!). The four miniscule pieces of baklava would have been measly on their own, let alone to share. Thankfully they were scrumptious: moist, sweet, and bursting with the taste of pistachio. The almond candyfloss was a surprising addition, and, whilst unfortunately reminiscent of a certain Foreign Secretary’s coiffure, was melt-in-the-mouth heaven. Finally, the ice cream was a welcome, light finale to three rich courses.
Did it live up to expectations? Not quite. But the service and warm, fuzzy atmosphere, and pretty good grub left me smiling (admittedly – a smile slightly aided by the complimentary obscenely strong shot of something-or-other thrown in at the end).
Value for money: 8/10