You only have to look at a menu to realize what it means to be at the crossroads of different worlds. On the eastern coast of the Old World, between the West and East, between distant and nearby lands, is a small country, the Lebanon, whose capital Beirut has witnessed the passing of men and of days.
What remains of the city’s fortunes is deposited in the flavours and selections of ingredients which have gradually come to form today’s Lebanese cuisine: a melting pot which finds expression in cooking, in architecture, even in the language, since here we speak all languages, and even try to understand each other!
The whole world can be found on the tables of Beirut. To start with, there is the type of cooking identified as “Lebanese cuisine” which in restaurants can be summed up in a single word: mezzé, the forebear of Spanish tapas. This is a meal consisting of numerous small – and often cold – dishes, vegetables, salads, raw and cooked meat, and lastly, a barbecue.
In what remains of the old districts in the heart of Beirut, the Mijana restaurant welcomes its customers in a building dating back to the beginning of the last century and offers a perfect example of mezzé.
Also in Beirut, inside an even older building, is the Sultan Ibrahim, renowned for its fried meat, fish and poultry specialities. Unfortunately it is best to turn a blind eye to the impersonal, oppressive setting.
Food prepared in the home is usually based on stews and other slow-cooking dishes, which are not often found in restaurants. But the Walimah has made this kind of dish its speciality. Here women are in charge of both the service and the cooking: in a welcoming, homey environment, three ladies serve dishes based on their grandmothers’ recipes, and desserts whose names have been long forgotten, even by the natives.
The cuisine of nearby countries like Syria and Armenia is also widely used in Lebanon. At Mayass you’ll find Armenian dishes, thick with spices, and specialities like mante, Armenian ravioli baked in the oven.
A country with over 200km of coastline (today, sadly, often covered in concrete) cannot fail to have plenty of good fish. The simpler, the better, so they say – though if you listen to those who love crunchy, golden fish, flavoured with oil, “the more it is fried, the better”. It’s a question of taste.
In St George’s Bay, named after the patron of the city and still famed for the legendary pre-war hotel of the same name, the La Petite Marée restaurant stretches over the sea. Here you will inevitably find delicious fresh fish and seafood. However the “must” for fish is Samy, on a little stretch of beach at Jounieh, near Beirut. At Samy you will only find the very best the sea has to offer, with other simple, absolutely perfect dishes: the quest for perfection continues in a sober and elegant setting.
France’s typical culinary style has many admirers around here and so French cuisine is naturally widely available. Situated on the top floor of the best hotel in town, L’Albergo has become well known and sought after for its excellent food. It is elegant and opulently decorated, the view fades over the rooftops of the old city into the blue backdrop of the sea and the menu lists dishes as sophisticated as the atmosphere.
Also on the top floor of a grand hotel (the Hotel Phoenicia, another pre-war legend), is L’Eau de Vie. The French menu is “revised and lightened” perhaps to blend better with the unparalleled severe simplicity of the modern, elegant rooms.
Also French, but more in the style of a beer house, are the Jules Verne, which guarantees the best choucroute (sauerkraut) – perhaps in order to earn its title as a beer house – and the highly sophisticated Balthus, situated in a new central district.
Moving even further afield, the soul of the kitchen at the Casablanca restaurant is Cin Farah, from China; she offers dishes that combine the flavours and ingredients of both cultures. Don’t miss the outstanding organic vegetables, grown with passion by Cin’s husband Johnny. The restaurant is inside an old Lebanese house on the seafront, painted completely white on the outside (hence the name) but livened up by bright acid colours on the inside.
The flavours of another far-off culture can be found at the Solea, where Maria Jesus prepares real paella just like she always made it back home in Valencia. Maria-Jesus works in the kitchen and Zeina, her daughter, serves in the tiny restaurant. This is a delightful family trattoria with a spontaneous Spanish spirit.
For Californian-style nouvelle cuisine in the most fashionable setting and atmosphere in Beirut, there is Otium. Stark white, sober and linear, subtle flavours in a mixture of eastern and western styles.
Beirut’s latest passion is sushi. Apparently the city cannot live without it, and no restaurant worthy of the name can be without a sushi bar. The Sushi Bar and the Shogu interpret this Japanese dish par excellence in an exclusive environment, while the Sô prefers the “gastrodome” format.
In Beirut you cannot be hungry for long. You can always find something tasty to eat, even from the street vendors and stalls. And anyway, there’s always home cooking, perhaps at the home of a friend you bump into, who insists you come back to his place for a bite.
So Sahtein – “bon appetit” to everyone.
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.