The menu begins with an extensive selection of meze (divided into hot and cold sections), with a selection of vegetarian and fish main courses and plenty of meaty numbers under the 'charcoal grill' heading. Although reasonably-priced vegetarian mains such as cracked wheat, lentils and fried onions served with yoghurt (£6.90) sounded interesting, there's nothing like a bit of variety, so we stuck with the meze.
As S had kindly agreed to renounce flesh for the evening, we opted for a dish of houmous and one of mohammara (a violently-coloured blend of crushed nuts red capiscum, olive oil and spices), a fattoush (mixed salad with herbs and toasted Lebanese bread), some fatayer sebanikh (pastries filled with spinach, onions, pine nuts and lemon juice), sanbousek biljibneh (feta-filled pastries) and some falafel. This may sound like more than two relatively small people could stomach, but given the delicious-sounding selection on the menu, it was a fairly restrained order.
Sipping a glass of Lebanese white wine as we waited, a platter of raw vegetables appeared in front of us. I'd call them crudites, but last time I checked, a whole green pepper and half a lettuce didn't fit into this category. An unusual addition to the table maybe, but an easy way to your five a day as long as you don't mind a bit of at-table chopping action.
Within a matter of minutes, the waiter whirled over with a tray of well-presented little dishes of vegetarian delights. All were a decent size for the price (between £2.50 and £3.50 each) - none of the thimble-sized portions so common in UK 'tapas' restaurants. The houmous was smooth and creamy and the mohammara just spicy enough; perfect smeared on chunks of fresh flatbread. An ideal summer dish, the fattoush was fresh and lemony tasting, with the crispy flakes of toasted bread adding substance. The falafel was a touch on the dry side for my taste, but slathered with houmous it was perfect. Both the pastries were surprisingly light and full of flavour - I thought that the fatayer may feel somewhat lacklustre without any cheese content, but the addition of pine nuts and lemon juice was definitely enough.
For just £28.50 for 2 people including 2 glasses of wine and a 10% service charge, our meal made me understand why Al Shami has been drawing customers to this corner of Jericho for over 20 years: it's a class act, without the hefty price tag.
Al Shami is at 25 Walton Crescent, Oxford OX1 2JG. Tel: 01865 310066.