Jade George

Jade George spends the majority of her waking hours bringing the best of Lebanese culture to the forefront. While George’s most visible role might be that of Middle East academy chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, her passion is in simple food and in celebrating the effort of the people in the entire supply chain. A former food critic for Time Out Beirut, George is a co-founder of Art And Then Some, an independent publishing house and ideas factory based in her native city of Beirut. Among the work it publishes is The Carton, a food culture magazine cantered around the Middle East that boldly dedicates entire issues to tahini or shawarma. Lebanon is undergoing one of the toughest economic and political incidents of its entire history, including a currency devaluation, a revolution against governmental corruption and a tragic blast that took place last August 4 said to be the third largest explosion in human history. But the stories of the people of this country are ones worth telling and their generosity of spirit is worth celebrating.

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An Introduction To Beirut Through Its People

It’s ironic coming from someone who’s chaired the Middle East for The World’s 50 Best for the last 7 years, to say that Lebanon does not really have a fine dining scene, isn’t it? But everything about Beirut is ironic. When eating here, the less fancy, the better actually. It’s all about the small, independent restaurants, those with a consistent effort and the longest breath. The places run by young fellows who aren’t scared to take risks, the little holes-in-the-wall that have been there for generations and maintained a certain level of quality, day in and day out. These are the places I really like to talk about.

Creative expression is very tangible in Beirut. They say, where there’s brokenness, there’s art in the very act of living. I don’t like to use this too much as it can easily be misunderstood; there’s no excuse for breaking people nor is there glory in rising up from exploitation. But some things are simply true about the Lebanese people and it’s all right to say them. Some of those being that we have a great sense of humour, we place a huge importance on having a good time: on friends, dining and music. This may be the only certainty in Beirut. Sometimes it feels like weekends don’t exist here. Monday night feels like Saturday night sometimes. There are no rules.

Beirut has changed a lot lately. It’s a conversation my friends and I drown in frequently. We love our city like a mother loves its child. The generation of our parents lived the Civil War. They saw the city get destroyed over 15 years. I don’t like to compare people’s tragedies, but the blast of August 4 last year had us witness the destruction of our city in a span of a second. Literally. You closed your eyes, and if you were lucky enough not to have gotten hurt, you reopened your eyes to the sight of your world completely gone. In a blink of an eye, just like that. Spots you’ve built all your memories around ceased to exist. And something just died, in a way. We’re still trying to understand what that something is. And we find ourselves holding on to anything that remains. Attached to anything that manages to survive, anyone that continues pushing… That’s something you can’t help but do.

Lebanese Breakfast Culture

You need a big breakfast to start a day in this mad city. Bakeries to us are either where those Lebanese pita breads are made or a man’oushe shop. We call both ‘furn’ which is Arabic for oven. The man’ouche is the quintessential Lebanese breakfast on the go. It’s our version of savoury pastries. Toppings and fillings are endless and include akkawi cheese, spinach, a meat mix with tomatoes and onions, keshek, which is fermented goats’ yoghurt with bulgur, chilli paste, sesame and crushed walnuts… Keshek is a versatile ingredient. If not made into that reddish mix topping a man’oushe, it is typically served like a soup that is beige in colour and looks utterly hideous but is one of the best things you can ever have in winter. Prepared with ground meat and whole garlic, served with bread to dip. I’m used to having it as brunch at home, and still prepare it the way my grandmother did. Labneh is on every breakfast table, of course. We douse it with extra virgin olive oil and have it along with local white cheeses, fresh vegetables and herbs and olives that someone has sent you from their grove. Like a lot of Mediterranean countries, our diets rely heavily on acidity to balance out our meals.

Kalei Coffee Co is the perfect destination for everyday breakfast food and you’re in luck because the breakfast menu there runs all day. Who doesn’t want to have Palestinian eggs at night, soft boiled in a bowl of yoghurt with preserved lemon? The coffee at Kalei is hands down the best in the country. If you’re into light to medium roasted coffee that’s ethically sourced with proper traceability, this is the spot… Whether you’re after an espresso-based drink, a pour-over or a Lebanese coffee brewed in a ‘rakwe’… One of the most popular coffee-based drinks is Kalei’s espresso lemonade. People buy it by the gallon.

With two locations in the city and not planning to expand any further, Kalei has become very popular in Beirut, because of its community-centric mind-set, its ample outdoor seating surrounded by trees in the middle of the city and its friendly staff. It helps that the prices are always real value for money, even in these times, and the quality of the food and drinks is no laughing matter. There’s a high focus on local ingredients, even in the cocktails, featuring unusual arak-based concoctions and specials made with Lebanese apples and local gin. The food features a comeback of ingredients that are unfamiliar to the younger generations and typically not found on restaurant menus. The ambariz sandwich with makdous, which is pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and chili pepper, and tomato slices is one example of that. Ambariz is a cheese that is fermented in terracotta jars, is rare to find these days and requires a trip to a trusted maker in the mountains. Taking this really ancient tradition and serving it in sourdough is a good example of the approach to food at Kalei. The awarma on toast is a popular dish too. Awarma is lamb confit, something you might find at your grandma’s house, but it’s really nicely done at Kalei with chilli pickles and eggs, served on sourdough toast.

Lebanese Breakfast Culture, Continued

You can’t say Lebanese breakfast without saying ful, hummus and fatteh. Though we can make this at home, we always prefer to go to places like El Soussi or Le Professeur to eat them because you can’t beat their experience. When we say ‘hummus’ in this context we don’t mean the Lebanese dip made into a paste and mixed with tahini. ‘Hummus’ in fact means chickpeas in Arabic, and two personal favourites made with hummus, whipped up in these tiny holes-in-the-wall are ‘msabha’ and ‘balila’ served as whole boiled chickpeas. Msabha is mixed with a tahini-based sauce and Balila features a sauce with a lot of garlic, lemon and olive oil. Each ‘fawwal’ or ful-maker has their own recipe for the sauce. ‘Ful’ is Arabic for fava beans. And a ful dish is roughly mashed with a lemon-garlic-oil sauce and tossed with diced tomatoes, onions and coriander. But again, to each their recipe.

There are some bakeries that only do lahm beajjine. Ichkhanian makes a pomegranate molasses version and an Armenian one, which is what she refers to the spicier version. ‘Laban ayran’, a salty yoghurt drink, always accompanies it to help put out the fire. Armenian bakeries are typically really good for this.

Mavia Bakery is a recent addition to the city. The project initially started as a non-profit organisation that teaches Lebanese and Syrian women from rough neighbourhoods in the Tripoli area how to bake. It was created to empower them and bring the bread home, both literally and figuratively speaking. Eventually, some of these woman ended up working at Mavia.

A Charming Armenian Restaurant

I was born in Beirut. Our civil war began to wrap up in 1990, and after that, there was a really slow rebuilding of the city. So there aren’t that many restaurants that I’ve been going to since a young age. One restaurant that I’ve been frequenting for a while now is in the Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud. You have a large Armenian diaspora in Lebanon, some that have fled since the Armenian genocide, others who fled to Syria at the time, and due to the war that broke out there, ended up in Lebanon. Many of them come from Aleppo specifically. And they come with a really rich food culture. Varouj is this tiny place with four tables in the middle of what is kind of like a little Armenia. It’s very charming and no-fuss. The first time I went was about 15 years ago. The family of painter Paul Guiragossian invited me to dinner. I enjoyed it very much. It’s where I go for Armenian food now, but also for offal. Offal is tricky and they do it very well. Things like fried brains, sheep tongue and testicles… All of that delicious but particular stuff. I love the way they prepare the chicken liver. They dice it up really small and add all sorts of spices; it’s super peppery and has a really nice kick of acidity. The owner’s son is behind the counter cooking and he’ll give you some grilling if you don’t finish your plate. Really, he gets pissed off. His dad used to do the same. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you’ll manage to get him to crack a smile. As soon as you sit down, he’ll start telling you what’s on the menu and you literally have to go like ‘yes, one of these, no, no, yes, two of those.’ Everything is really fresh, and the menu is the butcher’s best of the day.

A Real Taste of Lebanese Home Cooking

For typical home cooked Lebanese dishes we go to Tawlet Souk el Tayeb, which has been around for more than 10 years. The project started off as Souk El Tayeb, a weekly food market, and expanded into Tawlet, a canteen-like place that invites a different cook every day to prepare food from their region of the country. The canteen was damaged during the explosion, but they did a colossal crowd funding campaign to consolidate their efforts into one massive warehouse that would contain the canteen, a corner to sell their own locally sourced products and a roofed version of the market without having gain the approval of Beirut’s municipality (AKA a bureaucratic nightmare). The market happens a lot more frequently now and they do cool pop-ups and events. The food there is memorable. It’s the kind of food your mum or grandma cooked at home: real, good Lebanese food. Although the country is small, how people cook from north to south, or valley to coast, differs. And you really get to see that at Tawlet.

Homestyle Mezze

Contrary to western perception, mezze is not really home-style food. It’s what we eat on a Sunday or when we don’t feel like cooking and chose to go to a restaurant instead. I like to go to Naas in the Bekfaya region to a restaurant called Tallet Nasr for mezze, grilled or raw meats and that sort of thing. The food there is exceptional. I mean it’s in the very basic things. Basic mezze staples like ‘fattoush’ are simply made very well. Every time I order the hummus, my first reaction is ‘whoa, I’m ordering myself an extra tub of this and no one’s touching it.’

Celebrating The Diversity of Arak

There are a few bars that I frequent when I’m not having drinks at Kalei. One of them is Anise, and is known for classic cocktails, but also for arak sourced from different villages across Lebanon. Arak is our version of moonshine, and what is known in Greece as raki or ouzo. Anise is one of those typically dim, really small bars with staff that’s really friendly once they get to know you. We’re hoping these guys end up reopening. Their shop was severely damaged by the blast.

A Local Musician’s Side Hustle

There’s a bar with generous outdoor seating called Brazzaville that my friends and I frequent. The kitchen there is run by Pascal Semerdjian, who is the drummer of a local band called Postcards. When he’s not in a recording studio or touring the globe, Pascal is cooking. He does a great job curing meats and brews a pretty good range of beers. He does a lot of fermenting and bakes his own sourdough. Before Brazzaville opened, he would pop up with a stall at markets and local bars, doing things like pastrami sandwiches and vegan burgers. The folks at Brazzaville invited Pascal to feed their hungry patrons. The menu is relatively small, but is well thought out and seasonal. The bar run by Rani and Pico matches up so there’s good synergy going on, and it’s all tied together with a super friendly staff.

An Internationally Acclaimed Bar Rises Again

Some might have heard of Electric Bing Sutt since it was listed on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Its co-founder is bartender Jad Ballout, who started it with his wife and co-owner Lin. He’s Lebanese, she’s Chinese, and you can say that they’ve kind of created a bar that looks like the two of them. Electric Bing Sutt made spot on cocktails inspired by local ingredients and the food has a bit of an Asian twist. I say ‘made’ in the past tense because it was severely hit by the blast, but we’re very happy to know that they’re going to relocate. They managed to pick up a new place, very close to the port again, and I think they’re going to call it Dead End Paradise, because it happens to be a bar at a dead end. It will be bigger in size than their old spot. We’re looking forward to seeing them and the old team bounce back.

Giving The People What They Want

Another cocktail bar I’d like to mention is Ferdinand for the great cocktails and the chef-owner Riad Aboulteif. Though bad luck has chased him recently this guy’s persistence is incredible. He’s super hard-working, good at what he does, and is so passionate about cooking. He comes from an architecture background but left everything and took over this bar. He started off just making burgers and salads, and then began experimenting with local ingredients. He was in the finishing stages of opening a new restaurant, something on the fine side, but a series of unfortunate events led him to say ‘you know what, I don’t think people want anything refined right now. People want good, affordable food.’ He put the old idea to sleep and decided he wants to open something a little more relaxed, while still putting tradition on the forefront. He’s going to call it Ammoula after his mother, and it will also be a stone’s throw away from the Port. He’s brought on board one of Beirut’s favourite bartenders, Ziad Abi Akar, who will be working on the cocktails menu and curating the wines. I’m looking forward to them inaugurating after the lockdown.

A Uniquely Lebanese Experience

Something I always encourage visitors to do to discover the country but also to eat well, is stay at one of the great guesthouses the country boasts. It’s really an amazing experience. Guesthouses in Lebanon have popped up like crazy in recent years. But you have to pick them well. I’ve eaten some of the best food in some of those, and there are great choices in different regions across the country, and in each, the proprietor has built a tailored experience. I recommend Beit TradLa Maison des SourcesBeit El Batroun and Beit Douma.

Pantry Goods With Purpose

Kanz is a social entity by Beit El Baraka that sells pantry goods from across Lebanon. Beit El Baraka is a non-profit organisation amongst the ones that helped rebuild the city after the devastating port explosion of August 4. The organisation has launched Kanz as a side project to help sustain its social work beyond donations alone. I cannot stress enough how great its products are and it’s for a good cause. Chef Youssef Akikiis one of the chefs helping them out. He used to work at French fine-dining restaurant Burgundy, but we’re happy to see him finally venture out into his own thing. He built a small restaurant in his hometown of Hrajel and called it Brut. It opens seasonally.

The Carton Shop

When The Carton was just a print magazine, we came to a stage when we had to decide if we were going online or not. We deemed it more fit to create conversations that take different shapes, instead of building new mediums. To not limit ourselves to writing articles. We wanted more of an experiential kind of dialogue and essentially interact with more people through exploring everything The Carton represents. On the road towards that, we figured the best way to start was to create a physical address for people to simply interact with us and with The Carton. Visitors are often really shocked seeing the editor of the magazine in the shop, which I find amusing. We opened the first The Carton Shop in 2016 on the premise of the coffee roastery of Kalei, in the Mar Mikhael area. We share the same values, so it’s a really nice marriage of the two projects. The space is wonderful. The building itself is a ground floor house from the 50s, which was a family home at the time. It was abandoned for many years, and the whole house was in really bad shape before Dalia Jaffal, the powerhouse behind Kalei, found it. It’s been fixed up wonderfully, without changing too much. It was kept as raw as possible: scraped-up paint and old terrazzo floor, perfectly accentuated with modern furniture and lighting fixtures. It’s got a generous outdoors part to it: a front garden with high trees and a rooftop that transports you. People from the neighbourhood frequent it for a coffee, a Spritzer or a bite. Some come every single day and stay for hours. It’s that kind of a place. The Carton Shop sits right on the front porch of Kalei. In there you can find things like wrapping paper and cards printed on well-sourced paper. We work with many artists, so you’ll find limited edition prints revolving around food culture and the Middle East. People often stop by for the wine corner, which shines a light on some of the lesser-known local wine producers from across the country.

A Few of My Favourite Lebanese Winemakers

We have three popular regions for winemaking in Lebanon. Chateau Trois Collines is in the largest one, the Bekaa Valley, but the only one we know of that comes from Baalbek, the site of the ancient city of Heliopolis, where the world-famous ruins remain. The story is, that the winemaker owns tons of land in that region. And basically, what he did for a living was bulldoze land for stone and such. Then one day, someone came along and said to him, “What the hell are you doing? Do you know how fertile this land is?” So he decided to explore that statement, and ended up making some really interesting wines and has received organic certification recently. The good thing is that he hires the right people for the job, from the design of the bottle to the winemaking. And it’s available at affordable prices.

I like what Iris Domain does, another certified organic wine. It is based in Btalloun, around Bhamdoun, in another wine growing region in Mount Lebanon. That’s a short drive from the city. They’re known for their one red wine, of course with a different vintage every year. The winemaker and creator Sarmad Salibi is a ball of good vibes. He comes from a completely different background but loves wine so started making it in his family-owned land. He recently opened a small seasonal restaurant where he and his team cook food for people visiting the winery to give them a well-rounded experience of the domain. And they’re currently working on building a guesthouse so that you never leave again.

Another wine we’ve had on rotation is Sept, which was created by winemaker, Maher Harb. He also started everything from scratch on his own on his family’s land in Nehla, in the third wine region over in the Batroun Mountains. He experiments with a variety of grapes from the wine-growing regions of the country making his own minimal intervention mono-cépages and blends, hence describing the wine as ‘vin de lieu’. It’s a really nice setup with a winery overlooking a small vineyard. His grapes yield only a few bottles, and include Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Call him ahead and he can cook you a lunch with produce from his land and region. It’s a lovely terroir up there.

The approach to cooking in both Iris Domain and Sept Winery is close to our hearts and is an informal affair. It’s strange, because you end up eating so much better than you would at many restaurants. Maher for example focuses a lot on what grows in his wild vineyard. So, he’ll put on his boots and go foraging the land for vegetables, herbs and leafy plants. Instead of doing what your grandmother usually does with these ingredients, he gets a little inventive. And since he’s the one cooking, he makes sure that the food goes well with his wines to really elevate the experience.

Guide last updated March 2021

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