Jade George

Jade George spends the majority of her waking hours bringing the best of Lebanese and Mediterranean culture to the forefront. While George’s most visible role might have been 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 The Carton, which started off as a food culture magazine based in her native city of Beirut that boldly dedicates entire issues to tahini or shawarma, and expanded to bringing some of these stories to life in physical spaces. 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 a seven-year academy chair for The World’s 50 Best to say that their city 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. 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 maintain a certain level of quality, day in and day out. Those are the places I really like to talk about.

“We Love Our City Like A Mother Loves Her Child”

I don’t like saying what I’m about to say as it can easily be misunderstood. There’s no excuse for breaking people nor is there glory in rising up from exploitation. But some side effects are simply true about the Lebanese people and it’s all right to say them sometimes: Where there’s brokenness there’s art in the very act of living. Creative expression is very tangible in Beirut. We place huge importance on having a good time, on friendships, drinking and dining together and on music, and take things with great sense of humour. We love our city like a mother loves her child. This may be our only certainty. Monday night feels like a Saturday night here. There are no rules. The generation of our parents lived the Civil War and saw the city get destroyed over the course of 15 years. I don’t like to compare tragedies, but the blast of August 4 [2020] 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 to open them again, it was to the sight of your world completely gone. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, spots you’ve built all your memories around ceased to exist. Something just died, in a way. We’re still trying to understand what that something is, and find ourselves holding on to anything that remains and anyone that continues pushing.

Lebanese Breakfast Culture

You need a big breakfast to start a day in this mad city. A Bakery is called “furn” in Lebanon whether it’s the one that makes and sells flatbread or the one that makes manaeesh (plural of manousheh). Manousheh is the quintessential Lebanese breakfast on the go. It’s our version of savoury pastry. Toppings and fillings are endless and include akkawi (white brine cheese named after the city of Akka), a spinach and onion mix, a meat mix with tomatoes and onions, and keshek, which is a fermented (usually goats’) yoghurt with bulgur, that is dried into a powdery consistency, often mixed with chilli paste, sesame or crushed walnuts. Keshek is a versatile ingredient. When it’s not that white (or reddish) mix topping a manousheh, it’s typically a beige-coloured soup that looks utterly hideous but is one of the best things you can ever have in winter. You fry some ground meat, onions and whole garlic – the base of most Lebanese stews which we often refer to as “aliyyeh” – and top it with the powdered keshek and some water. I’m used to having it for brunch at home with flatbread on the side, and still prepare it the way my grandmother used to do. Like a lot of Mediterranean countries, our diet relies heavily on acidity to balance out our meals. Labneh (strained yoghurt) is on every breakfast table, of course. We douse it with extra virgin olive oil and have it with an array of local white cheeses, fresh vegetables, herbs and some olives that would likely be a gift from someone’s grove.

Lebanese Breakfast Culture, Continued

You can’t say Lebanese breakfast without saying ful [medames], hummus and fatteh. “Ful” is the Arabic word for “fava beans” and in this dish is served whole or roughly mashed with a lemon-garlic-oil sauce and tossed with diced tomatoes, onions and coriander. Fatteh is a concoction of boiled chickpeas, garlicky yoghurt with tahini and Lebanese bread croutons. When I say “hummus” in this context I don’t mean the Lebanese dip made into a paste and mixed with tahini. “Hummus” is, in fact, the Arabic word for “chickpeas”. Although all of these dishes can be made at home, we always prefer to let the connoisseurs do it. For me those are ElSoussi and Le Professeur. Other personal favourite dishes made with chickpeas that these tiny holes-in-the-wall specialise in are msabbaha and balila, both served with whole boiled chickpeas. Msabbaha is mixed with a tahini-based sauce, whereas balila comes in an ultra-garlicky mix of olive oil and lemon juice. Each fawwal (ful-maker) has their own recipe.

Favourite Café in the World

Kalei Coffee Co is the perfect destination for an all-day breakfast menu. Who doesn’t want to have an egg burger or Palestinian eggs at night, soft boiled in a bowl of yoghurt with preserved lemons? The coffee at Kalei is, hands down, the best in the country and, probably, some of the best I’ve had in the world. If you’re into light-to-medium roasted coffee that’s ethically sourced with clear traceability, then this is your spot. You can choose from a wide range of espresso-based drinks or go for a single-origin pour-over, Lebanese (ibrik) coffee, or Kalei’s espresso lemonade with a dash of orange blossom water, which people buy by the gallon. With two locations in the city, Kalei has become very popular because of its community-centric mindset, its ample outdoor seating surrounded by trees and the friendly staff. It’s value for the money despite the current hyperinflation and currency devaluation. The quality of the food and drinks is no laughing matter at Kalei. Aside from the coffee beans themselves, ingredients are pretty much local, even in the cocktails, featuring Lebanese gins and unusual arak-based concoctions. A Walk in Damour is a cocktail made with fresh cucumber juice and fennel-infused arak. The dishes present many ingredients that are unfamiliar to the younger generation of locals. The ambariz sandwich with heirloom tomatoes and makdous (pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and chilli pepper) revives a type of cottage cheese [ambariz] fermented in terracotta jars, and is very rare to find these days. Sourcing it involves a long drive to a trusted maker in the Chouf mountains. Serving such rare, traditional products on sourdough bread is a good example of the approach to food at Kalei. The eggs with awarma on sourdough toast is another example. Awarma is something you only find at your grandmother’s house and is a sort of lamb confit. Of course avo-toast makes an appearance and the daily cake and vegan cookies display is worth stopping by for alone.

Beirut-Style Lahmacun

Some bakeries specialise in lahmacun. It’s called “lahm bi ajjine” in Lebanon, which literally translates to “meat in dough”. Armenian bakeries are the best for this. Ichkhanian Bakery makes a pomegranate molasses version of it and an Armenian version which is a lot spicier. One should always pair it with laban ayran, a salty yoghurt drink, to help put out the fire.

Favourite Armenian Restaurant

I was born in Beirut, and our civil wrapped up in 1990. After that, there was a really slow rebuilding of the city, so there aren’t restaurants that I’ve frequented from a young age. One restaurant I’ve been going to for a while now though is in the Armenian neighbourhood of Bourj Hammoud. Named after its late owner, Varouj is a tiny four-table restaurant in the centre of an unofficial “Little Armenian”. It’s a very charming, no-fuss restaurant I was introduced to 15 years ago by the family of painter Paul Guiragossian. I enjoyed going there very much. There’s a large Armenian diaspora in Lebanon. Some fled during the Armenian genocide, others found refuge in Syria at the time, and when the war broke out there, fled again to Lebanon. Most of them came from Aleppo and brought their food culture with them. Varouj is my go-to not only for Armenian food but also for offal. Offal is tricky to make and Varouj’s son, who took over when his father passed, does it very well. Everything is really fresh, and the menu is the butcher’s best of the day. I’ll order anything from fried brains and sheep tongue to testicles: all of that deliciously particular stuff. I especially love the way they prepare the chicken liver. It’s super peppery with a nice balance of acidity. They dice it up really small and add all sorts of spices. The owner’s son is always behind the counter doing the cooking, but will step out to give you a grilling if he finds that you’ve left a plate unfinished. Really, he gets pissed off. His late father used to do the same thing. It’s very rare that I manage to get him to crack a smile. It’s just him and a slightly friendlier Egyptian waiter who will recite to you the daily specials as soon as you take a seat. You’re supposed to just nod or reply with a “yes” when you hear something you want.

Battle of the Shawarmas

We love shawarma so much that we dedicated a whole issue of The Carton to it. For a chicken shawarma loaded with toum (garlic paste), crispy chicken barbecued on a spit and crunchy cucumber pickles, I go to Restaurant Joseph, a street food joint in Sin El Fil. For the lamb version, it’s Jabbour Restaurant in Dora. The shawarmanji (shawarma master) slaps the shawarma on the grill after he’s wrapped it to give it extra crunch and smokiness, right before he loads the tip with a dollop of tarator (tahini mix) and crowns it with an extra chunk of meat.

Homestyle Mezze

Mezze is not really home-style food. It’s what we eat on Sundays or when we’re really lazy and want to go out for a meal. I like Tallet Nasr in Naas in the Bekfaya region. When I’m up for the drive, I visit Tallel Nasr for the mezze, the grilled and raw meats: They’re the standard Lebanese restaurant options but they do it exceptionally. Their hummus and fattoush are probably the best in the country. Fattoush is our version of country salad, typically made with herbs, tomatoes and greens, with Lebanese bread croutons, sumac, olive oil and pomegranate molasses.

Celebrating The Diversity of Arak

When I’m not having a drink at Kalei, there are a few bars I frequent. If I’m going to watch a show, it’s the Metro Al Madina theatre. There, I only order arak, which is our version of moonshine: a grape-based spirit distilled with anise. Otherwise I go to Anise, a dim and tiny bar with knowledgeable staff. It is known for its classic cocktails but also its arak, sourced from different villages across Lebanon. Both places are having it hard because of the crisis and can use the love and support.

A Local Musician’s Side Hustle

Brazzaville is a bar with generous outdoor seating. The kitchen is run by Pascal Semerdjian, who is the drummer of local band Postcards. When he’s not in a recording studio or touring the globe, Pascal is cooking. He does a great job curing meats and brewing a decent range of beers. He bakes his own sourdough and does a lot of fermenting. He also does pop-ups to promote his artisanal products labelled Blackcap Atelier: think pastrami sandwiches and vegan burgers. The menu at Brazzaville is relatively small, but is well thought out and seasonal. The staff are the friendliest in town and there’s great synergy going on between them and the bar run by long-time bartenders Rani and Pico.

An Internationally Acclaimed Bar Rises Again

Electric Bing Sutt was one of the World’s 50 Best Bars in its first year of operation. Co-founding bartender Jad Ballout started it with his ex-partner 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: The bar team made spot-on cocktails inspired by local ingredients and the food had a bit of an Asian twist. I say it in the past tense because the bar was severely hit by the blast, but the team’s journey continues in a new chapter called Dead End Paradise, a Tiki bar even closer to ground zero of the blast.

The Carton Shop

When The Carton was strictly a print magazine, we hit the crossroad between creating a digital version or to do something completely different. The core of the project was always to make room for an alternative cultural discourse using food as a primary tool. We decided that the road to that is through allowing for more human interaction. So we began creating physical spaces for people to simply interact with us and each other. The first was The Carton Shop which we opened on the premise of Kalei’s coffee roastery on Rue 54 in the Mar Mikhael district, which served as a brick-and-mortar for the magazine and other things we produced ourselves, along with Lebanese artisanal wines. Visitors are often shocked seeing the core team working in the shop, which we found amusing. The Carton and Kalei share foundational values and we continued our growth together to launch another space inside Kalei’s second roastery in Ras Beirut. This space became a pop-up for incredibly cool projects that have been hit by the blast or the economic crisis. Both spaces are wonderful to visit, because Kalei finds old Lebanese houses and refurbishes them preserving as much of the original traits as possible. So one is a 1950s house in Mar Mikhael and the other is a 19th century house in Ras Beirut. Both boast hidden gardens which is refreshing considering public spaces are practically non-existent in the city. The Carton’s latest project Townhouse is a short-lived guesthouse on top of Kalei Ras Beirut that was beautiful while it lasted, but we’re hoping to bring it to life somewhere else in the near future.

Wines Of Mount Lebanon

We have three popular regions for winemaking in Lebanon: the Bekaa Valley, Batroun in Northern Lebanon and Bhamdoun in Mount Lebanon. I love visiting Iris Domain in Bhamdoun. The winemaker and creator Sarmad Salibi is a ball of good vibes and makes a certified organic wine in the village of Btalloun, a short drive from Beirut. Sarmad comes from a completely different background but loves wine so he started making it in his family-owned land. Together with his life partner, he recently opened a small seasonal restaurant to feed the visitors to the winery and give them a well-rounded experience of the domain, and it’s one of the most beautiful experiences you can have in the country.

Wines Of The Batroun Mountains

Another beautiful eno-gastronomic experience you can have is at Sept Winery, the brainchild of winemaker Maher Harb in his hometown of Nehla. He too started everything from scratch on his family’s land in the mountains of Batroun. His own vineyards (namely Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) in Nehla yield small quantities, so he mostly experiments with a variety of grapes from different wine-growing regions, creating minimal intervention blends and mono-cépages. He refers to his wines as “vins de lieu” to emphasise that they are terroir wines. I like to see his experimentation with indigenous varieties such as the merwah and obeideh. You need to book ahead for a visit – make sure you ask for the lunch. Harb does the cooking himself using whatever he can forage and find around the village. It’s a lovely terroir up there with a picturesque setup.

Wines Of The Bekaa Valley

Vertical 33 started off as a passion project by medical doctor Eid Azar and is now a full-fledged winemaking operation in the village of Remtanieh in the Bekaa Valley. It has a wine tasting room on Gouraud Street in Beirut, facing one of Gemmayzeh’s oldest and coolest bars Torino Express. Dr. Azar only makes high-altitude (sometimes reaching 1600m), single-varietal wines and works around Lebanon’s microclimates to produce particular wines. The latest vintages I tried of Vertical 33’s obeideh and carignan were my favourite.

Power To The People

Though the manousheh is often referred to as “the Lebanese pizza”, i don’t agree with it, because pizza is pizza. One of the interesting new pizzerias that opened after the blast is Pizzeria Da Marco, a tiny take-out place on a slippery slope in Mar Mikhael with only two tables outside. Marco is only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when he’s not working his actual job. But he makes a pretty delicious, long-fermented Neapolitan pizza. Pizza Margherita is always my first choice.

A Real Taste of Lebanese Home Cooking

For typical Lebanese dishes, I go to Tawlet, where I’ve been going for more than 10 years. The project was founded by Kamal Mouzawak as Souk El Tayeb, a biweekly food market, and expanded into different gastro-touristic projects including Tawlet, a daily canteen that invites a different cook every day to prepare food from their region of the country. The food is always memorable: the kind of food we ate at home and it’s really good. Although the country is small, how people cook differs from north to south, valley to coast. And you only really get to see that at Tawlet. The canteen was damaged during the August 4 explosion, but with the help of a crowdfunding campaign, they managed to consolidate their efforts into one massive warehouse that now contains the canteen, a corner to sell their own locally-sourced products and a roofed version of the market without having to go through the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the local municipality. Don’t leave Beirut without some zaatar mix, keshek, a bottle of arak, a bottle of orange blossom water and liquid hand soap from Tawlet. The market is more frequent now and cool pop-ups and family-friendly events are organised on premise and include a print market called Souk El Kotob.

Pantry Goods For A Cause

Kanz is a project by social entity Beit El Baraka to produce and sell artisanal products from Lebanon. It was launched to help sustain Beit El Baraka’s social work beyond donations alone and promote regional food culture. I cannot stress enough how great these products are and you’d be supporting a cause when buying them. Chef Youssef Akiki is one of the chefs helping out with the recipes. He used to work at French fine-dining restaurant Burgundy, but he’s finally ventured out to do some exciting things like build his own small restaurant in his hometown of Hrajel. Brut opens in the summer only.

A Uniquely Lebanese Experience

I encourage staying in different guesthouses when visiting Lebanon to better discover the country and the generosity of its people. I’ve eaten some of the best regional food in guesthouses across the country where the proprietors have carefully tailored the experience. Choose wisely: I recommend Beit TradLa Maison des SourcesBeit El Batroun and Beit Douma.

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