Destinations, Food, Lebanon, Musings

Flavors, Friendships, and Top Meals in Lebanon: A Visit in Review

September 3, 2012

It’s fair to say that our Lebanon experience was shaped by two main factors: the overwhelming kindness of friends, new and old, and the mouthwatering flavors of Lebanese food (and drink!).

This is one of those posts entirely dedicated to fellow foodies and free spirits: to Jodi and Wade and Megan for taking us to t-marbouta on our first night in Beirut, to Lindsay and Samantha for hosting us for a rooftop dinner high above the frantic city, and especially to Jimmy and Madeleine for leading us directly to their favorite spots and top meals in Lebanon: some in plain sight, others hidden away where we’d never have found them on our own… In town, in the countryside, in restaurants and around kitchen tables, Lebanon won our taste buds and our hearts.

Small Town Lunch in Rural Lebanon
Zahlé Blvd, Zahleh, Lebanon
“Perfection in a chicken sandwich” from the Daily Travel Journal notes. Freshly grilled chicken, a mouthwatering combination of seasonings and spices, homemade pickles (see the crazy purple color below!), perfectly wrapped pita with sesame seeds, and chefs with killer-sharp knife skills.

Beirut Coffee & Hideaways
Beirut is an oasis culture. The city is buzzing, chaotic, rough around almost all the edges…but it’s possible to step just off the street and find yourself transported to a spot of complete retreat. Thanks to a cheat-sheet from our host Jodi, we settled into a habitual series of visits to our two favorite spots for coffee (iced, especially, during the 90+ degree days):

Dar Bistro & Books
Alley 83 off of Roma street, Wardieh, Hamra
This off-street hideaway was perfect for journaling, reading, watercoloring, and sipping beverages under a canopy of green. Plus, Dar’s book selection was a sight for sore eyes. If only our backpacks had more room!

Cafe Younes
We enjoyed two locations: Abdel Aziz Street, Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon (Near the AUB University Medical Center Campus) and Neemat Yafet Street, Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon.
Excellent selection of beans from a company that’s been roasting and serving quality coffee to the city of Beirut since 1935!  The most flavorful memory? Taking Younes beans to accompany our homemade, gourmet, guesthouse breakfast in Hasroun.

(The Only!) Craft Microbrew in the Middle East

Thanks to the enterprising work of 961 founder Mazen Hajjar, a tasty alternative to the Almaza/Heineken monopoly may be found in all sorts of restaurants, cafes, and stores around the city. For the full 961 Story (and it’s one of my all-time favorites!) >> Change is Brewing in the Middle East.

Traditional Lebanese Saj
High above the hot valleys on the way to our visit at the Tannourine Cedar Reserve, Jimmy pulled off the side of the road and we filed into this hole-in-the-wall for fresh-made flatbread dough stretched thin, cooked over a hot convex surface, filled with spice and cheese, folded in half and cut into slices rivaling any artisan pizza!

Book-and-food-lovers: this copy of From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel: Lebanon’s Slow Food Trail is full of beautiful stories of people and food from the tip-top to the far-south of Lebanon. I perused it for hours during our back-road rides with Jimmy and Madeleine, and I’ll be aiming to add a copy to my home shelf in the future… Memories + stories + recipes!

(Disputed) Best Falafel in Beirut

Falafel Sahyoun, Bechara Khoury Avenue, Ashrafieh, Beirut
After a movie night with J+M to watch the (oh-so-terrible) unnamed film starring Sacha Baron Cohen playing a fictional character vaguely related to this region of the world, we capped off our evening menu of movie theater popcorn with a taste-off at M Sahoun (one & two). For the full short story >> Falafel Feud: Two Brothers.

Fruits of our Labor at Tawlet

Beirut, sector 79, Naher Street #12 (Jisr el Hadid) Chalhoub building, #22 – ground floor.
Tawlet serves beautiful meals, but our favorite dinner came thanks to group-effort from the kitchen classroom: kebbeh batata, moutabbal, goat-meat kebbeh, and tabbouleh! For the full story and photo series >>  Lebanese Cooking School at Tawlet

Rooftop Drinks…

We’re not big party animals, so we didn’t frequent the famed nightclubs of Beirut, but we loved sipping mojitos with friends atop a few of the city’s rooftop bars.

Part I (A): Coop d’Etat
Saifi Urban Gardens, Pasteur Street, Gemmayzeh
Toasting friendships and farewells. Ted and I arrived for the last week of Jodi and Wade and Megan’s work schedule; Jodi was headed back to Oregon, Wade and Megan and Baby-Jane to their new life in Atlanta, and Jimmy and Madeleine were preparing for a summer schedule of work (and adventures with the two newbies from Oregon!). A treat to be able to enter their lives for a short chapter, and to gain so much from our sweet time with them.

Jodi/Wade/Baby-Jane/Megan: No doubt about the true life of the party!

Part I (B): Mayrig
282 Pasteur Street, Gemayzeh, Beirut, Lebanon
After drinks, we went for a pictureless visit to a spot in Gemayzeh serving absolutely delicious Armenian/Lebanese food. Everything we ate was grand: zeitoun salad – olives in a delightful herb and spice mix; vospov keufteh – lentil kibbeh; soujok fekhara – beef sausage in a rich tomato sauce; mouhammara – a hot red pepper and walnut sauce; but our favorite, favorite, favorite? Fishnah kebab – a wood grilled kebab topped with delicatly picked wild sour cherries coulis. Culinary inspiration, indeed! Another reason to get back to a home-kitchen and give these flavors a whirl.

Part II: Le Gray
Le Gray Hotel, Martyr’s Square, Central Beirut District
Wonderful girls’ night! Post-yoga session pomegranate sage mojito with Madeleine, followed by poking around for views of the Grand Mosque from the 360 bar.

…and Rooftop BBQs

Five star dining and hole-in-the-wall finds are wonderful while traveling, but meals hosted in homes can’t be beat. All thanks goes to Lindsay and Samantha for having us join them on their rooftop for honest to goodness grilled hamburgers (oh, a taste of home!), and – you guessed it – more 961. The perfect way to end a day on the Lebanese beachfront.

Homemade Brunch & Rural Wine Tasting

At Jimmy and Madeleine’s in Baabdat, Lebanon and Chateau Khoury in the Bekaa Valley
Home created from two lives shared. Travel photos and family paintings on the wall. Books adored, shipped across oceans and countries. Friends gathered. Tomatoes and greens from their lovingly-tended organic backyard garden served alongside fruits and the finest loaf from Bread Republic.

Daily Travel Journal excerpt: “As Jimmy drove us over the pass, I caught a split second glimpse of four Lebanese men jammed into the front a truck, waving their arms around, smiling, and maybe singing. How ironic that by the end of the night, we’d be doing nearly the same. Tried Queen Elizabeth’s favorite choice at Chateau Khoury and listened to Jean-Paul’s stories of champagne showers and feasts for 40 catered by his mom. ‘I’m 30 years old, and I’ve already been through four wars,’ he said. Sobering, despite the lively drinks. Saw the briefest glimpse of Israel on the far horizon at Mt. Hermon.”

Everything-Lebanese at t-marbouta
Hamra Square Center, Hamra Street, Beirut
Jodi, Wade, Megan, and baby-Jane took us to t-marbouta on our first night in town and toasted our arrival with legendary 961, and the tucked-away haven of a restaurant became a second home during our three weeks in Beirut…

We’re creatures of habit. The first night’s order bookended the trip when we returned with Jimmy and Madeleine on our final night in the Beirut to enjoy a family-style feast of kibbeh, garlic labneh, potatoes with coriander, hummus, fattouch salad, a plate of fried haloumi…and of course more 961 Lebanese craft microbrew.

Food & Friends: the Best Recipe for Travel
More than history lessons or views or sketch book notes, we will remember the food and the people and their stories. The flavors of this country: za’atar blends and those sesame seeds popping up everywhere, sumac sprinkled liberally on fattouch salads, garbanzo beans ground to the most delicious hummus-y pulp.

Lebanese citizens and foreigners, young and old, holding onto heritage and also starting fresh.

This – all of this – is Lebanon to us.

Thank you to each chef who worked behind the scenes. To each person who served us a plate of beautiful food or poured us a drink. To each friend who made a recommendation of a favorite spot or better still escorted us there in person to share the flavors and the passing time. Thank you to the country of Lebanon for prompting us to think deeply. And truly, thank you to you for sharing in our journey – it’s an honor having you along…

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  • Reply Liz Nichols September 4, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Fabulous read once again. Its almost like travelling along with you. Safe travels Liz

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 4, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      That makes me so happy to hear, Liz! Thank you : ) It’s a joy to be able to share the best from our travels. Lebanon really made a huge impression on our hearts. I’m so glad we decided to add it to our itinerary way back when.

  • Reply Andi of My Beautiful Adventures September 4, 2012 at 1:55 am

    Ahhhhh take me there NOW!!!!!!! I’m dying to go, now even more so. Love the pics.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 4, 2012 at 10:24 pm

      I so hope you get the chance! It’s absolutely, absolutely worth a visit. And be sure to spend long enough to get to know some of the wonderful people who live there. : )

  • Reply Jennifer September 4, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Wow, your descriptions of the food alone make me want to go to Lebanon. And those burgers! Oh how delicious they look!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 4, 2012 at 10:27 pm

      And they tasted even better! : )

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica September 5, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Great wrap-up for the foodies :-)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 7, 2012 at 11:39 am

      I hope you’re sufficiently hungry now ; )

  • Reply Lindsay September 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Love it! I’ll have to be revisiting some of these places soon :)

  • Reply Andrew Buck September 17, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Marvelous pictures Bethany! It’s 2:34am here (I know, I know, I’m going to bed soon) and I’m peckish and the food looks so amazing. I enjoy hearing your voice in my head as I read the posts and I can’t help but catch a little of your enthusiasm for it all. I wish I were there with you experiencing it all, but this is the next best thing. : )

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