Food Writer and Chef John Gregory-Smith’s Culinary Guide to Beirut

Wed, 3 July 2019
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In conjunction with the launch of his latest book, Saffron in the Souks, chef John Gregory-Smith shares his favourite foodie haunts in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

Nicknamed the “Paris of the East” (Lebanon was under French rule until 1943), Beirut is a city abundant with Parisian undertones. Yet a short stroll through the city’s souks and past street vendors will quickly remind you that you are certainly in the Middle East. From the architecture to the food the Lebanese capital is awash with cultural influences.

As the pinnacle of Lebanon’s food scene, Beirut is robust with flavoursome and traditional fare, bustling markets and some notable late-night dining options (the city’s notorious club scene is satiated only by kebabs post dance session). Chef John Gregory-Smith gives us a taste of Beirut.

Where is your favourite place to wake up?

I love to wake up at Beit El Tawlet in Mar Mikhael, one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the city. The rooms are bright and breezy with massive beds and interesting art. I always take one of the balcony rooms so that I can have a coffee outside and watch the sleepy city stir. You get amazing views of the mountains that surround the urban sprawl.

Where do you go for breakfast/brunch?

The restaurant at Beit El Tawlet does a banging Lebanese breakfast that consists of eggs with sumac, creamy labneh, man’oushe (Lebanese flatbreads cooked with za’atar or cheese) fresh salads, honey, fruit and thick black coffee. It’s insane. You can go and eat there even if you’re not staying with them – I highly recommend it.

A long lunch?

For something a little different, take a seat outside Cyrano, a wine bar right in the city. Crack open a bottle and settle in to watch the world go by over plates of brilliant French bistro food such as oozy croque monsieur and zingy goat’s cheese salad.

For dinner?

Tucked off the main road with a fabulous courtyard and an impressive menu of lip-smackingly good Armenian food, Mayrig is the perfect setting for a long dinner. Dine on delicate manti (tiny lamb-filled dumplings baked until golden and served in a rich yogurt sauce) and follow with tantalisingly tart sour-cherry meatballs, cooked in a fragrant sauce.

Where do we find the best local food?

The food in Beirut is really authentic so you won’t be stuck in a tourist hellhole. The most exciting thing to do is wander the different neighbourhoods on foot. Each area has its own local baker, from which you can buy man’oushe, as well as a butcher and grocer. At night, I love the bustling streets of Bourj Hammoud. This Armenian neighbourhood springs to life in the evening. You can find amazing things to nibble on, including ice creams, succulent kebabs and incredible smoky pastrami.

What about cocktails?

The drinks at Kayan, a laid-back speakeasy in Gemmayze, are really good.

How do you cure a hangover?

Talk to no one, get in an Uber and head straight to Makhlouf in Bourj Hammoud for a chicken shawarma: succulent grilled chicken, crisp salad, pickles and, most importantly, chips. Everything is doused in plenty of toum (garlic sauce) and wrapped in soft flatbread. It’s just divine and will dust off the cobwebs from the night before.

Which is the best food market?

Souk el Tayeb is a Saturday farmers market next to the Beirut Souks in the centre of town. This well-curated selection of stalls draws in fabulous producers from all over the country, who sell a wide range of regional produce.

Which up-and-coming chefs should we look out for in Beirut/ Lebanon?

For me, the guys at Baron are the ones to watch; they are redefining what Lebanese food. Lebanese cuisine is steeped in history and people like the dishes to remain classic, so it’s interesting to watch these guys take a fresh approach.

Where do chefs eat?

Tawlet. This incredible restaurant works as a community kitchen, hosting the best home cooks from across the country who come and prepare their regional dishes with the in-house chefs. It’s authentic and exciting; everyone goes to eat there for a taste of home.

What’s your favourite restaurant in Beirut right now?

I love Baron in Mar Mikhael. This innovative Mediterranean-Lebanese restaurant has a lovely little dining room with an open-plan kitchen and an intimate garden. The seafood is always amazing and it has a decadent dessert menu. It has put together a brilliant wine list, including several cracking local varieties – Lebanon has many wineries, concentrated in Bekaa Valley so it’s well worth sampling some of the local grapes when you’re in town.

What ingredients should we look out for?

The Lebanese palate is partial to sour flavours – they use lots of fresh lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and sumac in their cooking.

Za’atar is incredible – in Lebanon, za’atar is a herb that grows all over the country. It’s very floral smelling and has a slightly bitter taste. The fresh leaves are used in salads or are dried and mixed with sumac and sesame seeds to make the classic za’atar seasoning.

Tell us a dish we must try while in Beirut.

You have to try kibbeh nayyeh – a combination of extremely fine-ground, raw lamb or goat meat that is mixed with bulgur wheat. It is seasoned beautifully and served with lemon and a few mint leaves. It may sound a bit strange but essentially, it’s a version of steak tartare.

Tell us a secret spot in Beirut.

The Gärten, a nightclub on the seafront where the DJs play in a tent that looks like the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. The club opens late and stays rocking well until the sun comes up. The city has always been hedonistic, and this is one of the best places to feel that electricity.

Which is your favourite beach spot?

I am not a huge beach person and if I want to enjoy the coastline I tend to head south, past Sidon, where the beaches are extremely beautiful. North of the city, there’s a restaurant called Jammal which neighbours a secluded rocky cove – ideal for a post-lunch swim.

What’s in your SUITCASE for a trip to Beirut?

Good walking boots – I love hiking in the Qadisha Valley – and plenty of swanky clothes. Beirut is slick and the locals dress smart, so I like to make sure that I can fix myself up when in town.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

Saffron in the Souks launched in May so I have a really busy summer promoting my book. You can see all the events I am doing on my website.

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