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 ones I like talking about.
“We Love Our City Like a Mother Loves her Child”
I don’t really like saying what I’m about to say as 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 alright to say them sometimes: where there’s brokenness there’s art in the very act of living. Creative expression is very tangible in Beirut. There’s huge importance on having a good time, on friendships, on drinking and dining together and on music. Monday night in Beirut feels like another Saturday night – there are no rules. We have great sense of humour and we love our city like a mother loves her child. This may be our only certainty. Our parents’ generation 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  had us witness the destruction of our entire city in a span of a second. Literally, you closed your eyes, and if you were lucky enough to open them, 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 was, and we find ourselves holding on to anything that remains.
Lebanese Breakfast 101
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 you buy flatbread from or if it’s the one that sells manaeesh (plural of manousheh). Manousheh is the quintessential Lebanese breakfast on the go. It’s our version of a savoury pastry. Toppings are endless and include akkawi cheese (white brine cheese named after the city of Akka), a spinach and onion mix, a meat mix with tomatoes and onions and keshek (yoghurt fermented with bulgur that’s dried into a powdery consistency). Keshek is often mixed with chilli paste and sesame seeds or crushed walnuts. It’s an incredibly versatile food. It can also be a beige-coloured soup that looks utterly hideous but is one of the best things you can ever eat in winter. You fry some ground meat, onions and whole garlic – the base of most Lebanese stews which we refer to as “aliyyeh” – and top it with powdered keshek and some water. I prepare it the way my grandmother did: for brunch at home with flatbread on the side. 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. We douse it with extra virgin olive oil and have it with an array of white cheese, fresh vegetables, herbs and some olives likely to be a gift from someone’s grove.
Lebanese Breakfast, Continued
There’s a entire category under “Lebanese breakfast” that’s dedicated to hummus, ful [medames] and fatteh. When I say “hummus” in this context, I am not referring to the Lebanese dip. Hummus is the Arabic word for chickpeas. Ful is the Arabic word for fava beans and in this dish it’s roughly mashed with a lemon-garlic-oil sauce then tossed with diced tomatoes, onions and coriander. Fatteh is a concoction of boiled chickpeas, garlicky yoghurt (sometimes with tahini) and croutons. These dishes are often made at home or you can have them at ElSoussi or Le Professeur. Each fawwal (ful-maker) has their own recipe. Other chickpea specialties that these tiny holes-in-the-wall specialise in include msabbaha and balila. Msabbaha is mixed with a tahini-based sauce, whereas balila comes in an ultra-garlicky mix of olive oil and lemon juice.
Favourite Café in the World
Kalei Coffee Co is the perfect destination for an all-day breakfast menu. Who doesn’t want an egg burger at night, or maybe some eggs soft-boiled the Palestinian way in a bowl of yoghurt with preserved lemons? The coffee at Kalei is, hands down, the best in the country and some of the best I’ve had in the world. If you’re all about light-to-medium roasts and ethically sourced beans, then this is your spot. You can choose from a wide range of espresso-based drinks, go for a single-origin pour-over, Lebanese ibrik or discover Kalei’s espresso lemonade with a dash of orange blossom water which people buy by the gallon. The rotating cakes and vegan cookies are worth a visit alone. 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 its friendly staff. It’s value for your money despite the current hyperinflation and currency devaluation. Aside from the coffee beans, ingredients are pretty much local. Cocktails feature Lebanese gins and unusual arak-based [arak is anise-distilled liquor] concoctions like A Walk in Damour: a cocktail made with fresh cucumber juice and fennel-infused arak. The dishes present 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 that is very rare to find nowadays. 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 Kalei’s approach to food. The eggs with awarma on sourdough toast is another example. Awarma is a sort of lamb confit – something you only find at your grandmother’s house. Avo-toast also makes an appearance on the menu when avocados are in season.
Favourite Armenian Breakfast
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 they fled again, this time to Lebanon. Most of them came from Aleppo and brought their food culture with them. Armenian bakeries in Beirut make great lahmacun – called “lahm bi ajjine” in Lebanon andliterally translates to “meat in dough”. My favourite remains at Ichkhanian Bakery where you’ll find a version with pomegranate molasses and another spicier, less sweet, more garlicky version they call “the Armenian”. Always pair the latter with laban ayran (salty yoghurt drink) to help put out the fire.
Favourite Armenian Restaurant
I was born in Beirut and our Civil War wrapped up in 1990 and what followed it was a really slow rebuilding of the city. There aren’t restaurants that I’ve frequented from that young of an age. One restaurant I’ve been going to for a while though is in the Armenian neighbourhood, Bourj Hammoud. Named after its late owner, Varouj is a five-table restaurant in the centre of an unofficial Little Armenian. It’s a very charming, no-fuss kind of restaurant that I was introduced to 15 years ago by painter Paul Guiragossian’s family. I’ve enjoyed going there very much since. Varouj is my go-to for offal. It’s 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 and add a lot of spices to it. The owner is always cooking behind the counter but will step out to give you a grilling if he finds something left on your plate. Really, he gets pissed off. His late father used to be the same way. It rarely manage to get him to crack a smile. It’s just him there and a slightly friendlier waiter who will recite the daily specials to you as soon as you’re seated. You’re meant to just nod when you hear something you want.
Battle of the Shawarmas
Shawarma (spit-roasted meat) is such a strong part of our food culture that I’ve dedicated a whole issue of The Carton to it. For chicken shawarma loaded with toum (garlic paste), crispy barbecued chicken and crunchy cucumber pickles, I go to Restaurant Joseph, a street food joint in the Sin El Fil suburb. For lamb shawarma, I go to Jabbour Restaurant in the Dora suburb. After wrapping it in Lebanese flatbread, the shawarmanji (shawarma master) slaps the sandwich on the grill 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 in the Mountains
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 go to eat mezze and grilled and raw meats. They do the standard Lebanese restaurant options, but exceptionally well. The hummus and fattoush are probably the best in the country. Fattoush is our version of a country salad, loaded with herbs, tomatoes, greens, croutons, sumac, olive oil and pomegranate molasses.
Celebrating the Diversity of Arak
The bars I frequent include Anise, a small, dim neighbourhood bar with very knowledgeable staff. It is known for its classic cocktails but also for its extensive selection of arak: Lebanese moonshine sourced from different villages across the country. There’s also Torino Express, a dive bar that has stood the test of time on Gouraud Street in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood. When I fancy a live local show I go to the Metro Al Madina theatre.
A Local Musician’s Side Hustle
Brazzaville is a bar with generous outdoor seating and friendly staff including veteran bartenders Rani and Pico. The drummer of local band Postcards (Pascal Semerdjian) supplies some of the stuff in their kitchen. When he’s not in a recording studio or touring the globe, Pascal is curing meat and fermenting all sorts of stuff: beer, bread, pickles, you name it. His brand of deli food is called Blackcap Atelier and you can find it at Souk El Tayeb (farmers market) on Saturdays and grab a delicious sandwich from his stall. He does things like BLTs, pastrami sandwiches and vegan burgers.
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 created a bar that looks like the two of them: spot-on cocktails inspired by local ingredients and food with an Asian twist. The bar was severely hit by the blast, but Jad’s journey continues with some of his old staff in Dead End Paradise, a Tiki bar that’s even closer to ground zero of the blast.
Something To Pick Up Before you Leave
When The Carton was strictly a print magazine, we hit the crossroad between creating a digital version of it or doing 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 was through allowing for more human interaction. So we began creating physical spaces for people to interact with us and each other. The first was The Carton Shop, which opened on the premise of Kalei’s coffee roastery on Rue 54 in the Mar Mikhael district. It’s the magazine’s brick-and-mortar where you can buy copies and other things we produce ourselves. The Carton and Kalei share foundational values and we continued our growth together to launch another pop-up space inside Kalei’s second roastery in Ras Beirut. It became a collaboration space for incredibly cool projects that were hit by the blast and continue to struggle during in the economic crisis. Both locations are wonderful to visit: Kalei finds old Lebanese houses and refurbishes them while preserving as much of the original traits as possible. 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 to see considering public spaces are practically non-existent in Beirut. We started a guesthouse project, which launched with the Ras Beirut Townhouse right on top of Kalei in Ras Beirut. Though short-lived, it was beautiful while it lasted. We’re currently bringing a new space to life on one of the Greek islands.
Wines of Mount Lebanon
Lebanon has three popular winemaking regions: the Bekaa Valley, Batroun in Northern Lebanon and Bhamdoun in Mount Lebanon. In Bhamdoun, I love visiting Iris Domain. Winemaker Sarmad Salibi is a ball of good vibes and makes a certified organic wine in the village of Btalloun, a short drive from Beirut. He 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 winery restaurant to feed his visitors and give them a well-rounded experience in the vineyards and winery: it’s one of the most beautiful experiences you can have in the country.
Wines of the Batroun Mountains
You can also have a beautiful eno-gastronomic experience at Sept Winery, this time in the village of Nehla in the Batroun mountains. It’s the brainchild of winemaker Maher Harb who also started everything from scratch on his family’s land. His own vineyards in Nehla (namely Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) 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 to book the lunch which Maher prepares himself using whatever he can forage and find around the village. It’s a lovely terroir 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 facing Torino Express. Eid makes single-varietal wines and works around Lebanon’s microclimates to produce high-altitude wines (up to 1600m). You’ll find a obeideh, carignan and cinsaults which are quite unique.
Power to the People
Though manousheh is often referred to by visitors as “the Lebanese pizza”, I don’t really agree with it, because pizza is pizza. There’s a pizzeria called Pizzeria Da Marco that opened after the blast. It’s a takeout place on a slippery slope in Mar Mikhael with only two tables outside. Marco only opens on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when he’s not at his full-time job. He makes a pretty delicious, long-fermented Neapolitan pizza. Pizza Margherita is always my first choice.
A Real Taste of Lebanese Home Cooking
I go to Tawlet for Lebanese home cooking and have been going for more than 10 years. Founder Kamal Mouzawak started Souk El Tayeb a biweekly food market which expanded to 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 good and is the kind of food we eat at home. Although the country is small, how people cook differs from north to south, valley to coast. It’s all housed in a massive building where there’s also a shop for locally sourced products. Don’t leave Beirut without some zaatar mix, keshek, arak, orange blossom water and liquid hand soap made from bay leaves. The market also houses cool pop-ups and family-friendly events like a print fair called Souk El Kotob organised by Zeina Bassil who’s recently opened a lovely paper shop nearby for her brand Zenobie.
Pantry Goods for a Cause
Kanz is a line of artisanal products from Lebanon. It was launched to help sustain Beit El Baraka‘s social work beyond donations alone and to help promote regional food culture. I cannot stress enough on how great these products are – and you’d be supporting a good cause when buying them. Chef Youssef Akiki works on the recipes. He used to head French fine-dining restaurant Burgundy, but has finally ventured out to build his own restaurant Brut in his hometown of Hrajel in the north. It only opens in the summer: it’s Lebanese fine-dining in the middle of nature. The last time I was there, I was served raw kibbe (Lebanese raw meat dish) with arak sorbet, shanklish (fermented cheese with onions, tomatoes and herbs) tarts and spaghetti made with local saffron.
A Uniquely Lebanese Experience
The best way to experience Lebanon is to stay in different guesthouses across the country. That’s how you’ll really explore the country and discover the generosity of its people. Some of the best regional food I’ve eaten also happened to be there. Choose wisely though. I recommend Beit Douma, La Maison des Sources, Beit Trad and Beit El Batroun where the proprietors have carefully tailored the experience.
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