Written by William Dobson
Eating and drinking seems to be the main occupation of the Lebanese. Rarely does a conversation not touch upon the subject if, indeed, it’s not the focal point and everyone, from taxi driver to high powered business man, is willing to offer an opinion on the best places to eat. There are so many options to choose from and it’s difficult to go to far wrong. Here are a few of our suggestions:
Hamra, as the home to the American University of Beirut has a studenty vibe and, as such, is full of places offering cheap eats. Bliss Street, next to the university itself, is filled with open-fronted shops cooking manaeesh, a form of Lebanese pizza usually topped with za’atar and cheese, meat or nutella. Cooked on a saj, a convex-disk shaped griddle, they make a wonderfully fresh and flavourful snack, and leave the air full of the aromas from freshly made bread. However, the consensus is that, for something more substantial, Barbar is the place to go. Utilitarian in décor, this fast food joint, which also offers takeaway and delivery, serving fresh, simple and tasty fare epitomises what makes Levantine food so special. As well as the ubiquitous mezze selection (including fantastic fries), it’s the grilled meats which steal the show. All are cooked on charcoal, imparting a delicious smokiness, and they’re delicately spiced, subtly enhancing the natural flavours of the meat. The lahme meshwi (grilled lamb) is served with little cubes of fat which just disappear in the mouth, while the spatchcocked chicken, marinated in garlic and lemon, is succulent, juicy and delectable.
On a similar note, for a shawarma, Boubouffe on Mar Mitr Street in Achrafieh is worth the price of a plane ticket to Beirut alone. Serving either chicken or beef, rather than the more commonplace lamb, to paraphrase Gregg Wallace, kebabs don’t come much better than this. For all the ingenuities of Heston, Ferran Adrià et. al, it’s a wonder to behold when something so simple can be taken to new heights. We went for the beef which had been marinated in over 20 (secret) spices and then grilled on the usual vertical spit. However, it was the use of charcoal rather than gas which further sets this joint apart. Astoundingly full of flavour, they’re served, expertly wrapped in still warm bread, with the addition of tahini yoghurt, for a nutty sweetness, fresh tomatoes and cabbage for a bit of crunch. Perfection.
For an elegant and upmarket take on the traditional Lebanese fare, we loved Karam in Downtown. The main allure had been the inclusion of asfour, or little birds, sautéed in a pomegranate sauce, before being eaten whole, bones and all. It might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea but, if you can get over the shock factor, this is one of the finest Levantine delicacies. The rich, gamey flavour is offset perfectly by the tart sweet and sour sauce, while the soft, juicy flesh is contrasted with the initial crunch. Sowda nayeh, or raw lambs’ livers, again might not be to everyone’s taste but they were magnifcent, full of that rich iron flavour, with a soft and tender texture. However, the rest of the food here is equally as good with the muhammara, a wonderful dip of sun dried red peppers and walnuts, (simultaneously sweet, smokey, pleasantly bitter with a spicy kick ) which strangely hasn’t caught on here in the same way as hummous, as tasty as any I’ve tried. The service, which in Lebanon varies from amazing to amazingly inattentive, was fantastic.
The two other particular highlights were both in Mar Mikhail, a trendy, upcoming area full of artist boutiques, bars and restaurants. Tawlet, an open kitchen serving organic food where, each day, a different chef produces a buffet meal with food typical from his or her region, came with a large reputation. On the day we went, it was their Saturday ‘souk brunch’ and, if anything, it exceeded our high expectations. It was much more a reflection of Lebanese home-cooking with dishes such as sojuk (Armenian lamb sausage) stew, with a wondeful depth of flavour; laban emmo – literally mother’s milk – or subtly spiced lamb cooked in yoghurt with small, sweet onions until as tender as can be and served with fluffy rice, sweetened with pistachios, much like the Jordanian dish, mansaf; laham bi arjen, flat bread stuffed with spicy minced lamb; koussa, courgettes cooked in a deep, rich tomato sauce; and wonderful kibbeh nayeh, Lebanon’s answer to steak tartare made by mixing raw minced lamb and bulgur wheat, creamy and delicious. After my fourth visit to the table, it was only the magnificent sight of all the freshly made cakes and biscuits on offer which could hold me back from eating more.
Seza’s Bistro, an Armenian restaurant, also came highly recommend and, indeed, its popularity was proved as, even at 10pm on a Friday, they were too busy to accommodate us. A return visit the next evening, with a prior reservation, was more successful and, again, the food was divine. Lebanon is home to 150,000 Armenians, although the population was far higher before the Civil War (now there are more Lebanese Armenians in Los Angeles than Beirut) and is the only member of the Arab League to officially recognise the Armenian genocide. While the suburb of Bourj Hammoud is where the majority have settled, this quaint little eatery, complete with outside seating, is on a quiet side street, just a few minutes walk from Tawlet. The heavenly su boerek, salty filo pastry filled with soft, creamy cheese, was perhaps the standout morsel of our entire trip while manti was another particular favourite. These folded triangles of dough, similar to ravioli but with a crispier bite, were filled with spiced minced meat and topped with garlic yoghurt, giving a mellow sweetness, and sumac. Among other Armenian classics were the fishne kebab, very similar to kebab bil karaz in Aleppo, but with beef instead of lamb.
As a city obsessed with food, there are so many other great places to eat with both Lebanese and international restaurants galore. Zeitounay Bay, perched on the Mediterranean shoreline, has a great selection of bars and cafés with stunning views up to the mountains beyond, including a branch of Signor Sassi, an Italian restaurant which is part of the San Carlo empire whose flagship restaurant is based in Manchester. Cosmo Café, just a few doors down, serves an eclectic array of everything from pizza to sushi and is a great place for just a drink. Indeed, as an epicurean destination Beirut is right up there. Just avoid the vastly overrated Le Chef. Recommended to us on three separate occasions, even the rock bottom prices and location on super trendy Gemmayze Street couldn’t make up for the service, gruff to the point of rude, and the insipid food. Bland hummous with burnt pine nuts was an inauspicious start, while lukewarm okra stew wasn’t much better and the deep fried cauliflower was limp and soggy. The one low point in an otherwise exceptional week of eating, almost always washed down with a bottle (or two) of fantastic Lebanese wine!