Beirut might well be blossoming as quickly as a chemical-induced field of marijuana in Jamaica. But when sourcing the goods (drugs or not) it’s always best to get some insider tips before hitting up those that are just seemingly popular.
Having re-invented itself as a cosmopolitan capital (with the cocktails to match), everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Missoni, Dior and Louis Vuitton have flocked to meet demand from these raring to go Lebanese. The art scene’s growing and bars and restaurants are popping up like a broken line of jack-in-the-boxes. Quite frankly, it’s hard to keep pace.
Which is why we contacted man about town, Mr Mario Haddad – our very own Beirut guide. Not to mention the Beirut restaurant (read plural!) owner of Al Falamanki (Lebanese cuisine), The Jasmine Room (Chinese) and Le Sushi Bar (imagination please, dear readers).
The rather dashing (in an impressive pony-tailed kind of way) chap knows all about the Beirut nightlife, hotels in Beirut, as well as those extra special residential outlets that only a long term citizen knows.
How long have you been a resident of Beirut and what makes it such a special city?
I was born in Beirut and have lived in this city my entire life, except for the odd few years during the war when I attended school and university in Switzerland and London. Beirut is a city of contrasts; old buildings adjacent to modern skyscrapers, women in veils drinking coffee on a table next to young girls in miniskirts sipping on beer – the lot in an explosive mixture of 18 different religions and sects. Add to that the infamous joie de vivre garnered from generations of deprivation and the result is an amazing and unique place.
Have you seen a change in the type of visitor who comes to Beirut over the last couple of years?
Indeed, in the last couple of years Beirut has witnessed flocks of art-savvy European crowds that were missing from the tourist scene.
What drew you to the restaurant world and what do you find exciting about the local cuisine?
I ventured into the world of restaurants at a fairly young age because of my love of food. My dad being a renowned food aficionado, I quickly caught the bug. But what I find most exciting about the local cuisine is the freshness and wide array of local produce.
Can you give us the perfect recipe for creating a quintessential Lebanese dish?
Stuffed Cabbage Leaves:
Undress the Cabbage into large individual leaves, blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. Pat-dry them and remove the stem as to cut the leaf in two. (Do not discard the stems.)
Prepare a mixture made of: 1 cup short grain rice and 300grms of hashed beef and place them in a bowl. Season lightly with salt, pepper and a pinch of cumin.
Take a small amount of the mixture and place on the cabbage leaf and roll it as if rolling a spring roll. Repeat this step until you have used the entire quantity.
In a deep pot place the stems in the bottom to create a protection for the wraps. Start placing your wraps in a circular manner neatly in the pot inserting sporadically unpeeled cloves of garlic in between.
Submerge the wraps in beef stock and place on high heat until stock starts to boil then simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.
About 10 minutes before it is entirely cooked through add 3 cloves of crushed garlic along with a generous tablespoon of dry mint and the juice of 1 lemon.
Once done, flip the pot into a flat serving dish and serve with a side bowl of plain yoghurt.
For those of us wanting to get off the tourist trail, what are the hidden gems that only a long-time resident would know about?
Three names come to my mind; Maguy in Batroun, Al Sakhra in Chemlan, Varouj in Burj Hammoud. They are three very different yet authentic gems that only few locals know about.
Outside of your restaurant group, where do you tend to eat and drink? Where do you think is really special or wish you’d thought of?
You’ll find some really cool bars in Hamra and Gemmayze and more recently in Mar Mikhael, which is an artsy up-and-coming district. My personal favourites are De Prague in Hamra, Dragonfly in Gemmayze and Dictateur in Mar Mikhael.
In summer try rooftop bars such as Iris or Fly Bar or visit the newly opened Urugway street and enjoy a drink in one of the many outdoor terraces. As for restaurants I like the smaller bistros like Goutons-voir and the cozy refined eateries like Burgundy and Albergo.
What do you see as the drinking and dining trends in Beirut at the moment?
Gastro pubs and organic food restaurants.
What is going to be exciting in Beirut in 2012, what new restaurant/bar/club openings are you looking forward to and are there any major events we should be attending?
There are new restaurants, bars and clubs opening literally every week in Beirut so it would be impossible to list the most exciting but I personally am looking forward to the much anticipated opening of Sultan Brahim in the Jounieh Bay.