I’m sick of it. There’s a sort of monotony in Lebanon’s restaurants: the same old mezze, charcoal barbequed meats and some seafood if you’re on the seaside. I came hoping to see some flair and innovation, but the whole thing might be a fleeting dream. When every restaurant is a déjà vu, inspiration for writing is a bit hard to come by.
Tawlet is not a déjà vu, unless you’ve been reading the NY Times, Vogue, Masterchef magazine or if you’re a Bourdain fan and remember the Beirut episode (the one were he didn’t get stuck in a war). This widely acclaimed and highly publicised restaurant is a spin off from Souk El Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market. In a most unlikely neighbourhood below a residential building in the grittiness of Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, Tawlet is a funky, little spot showing off its modern, clever design and stylish finishings and is home to a crowd so hip and cool that they’ve forgotten how to speak Lebanese. I joke, but deep down, I feel a bit upset about the lack of real Lebanese people at Tawlet. That is perhaps the result of Tawlet’s international reputation being much stronger than its local one, which means a more international clientele is attracted, in addition to those Lebanese wankers who can only speak French.
Forget the stupid crowd. You probably won’t notice it, and in any case, we’re here for the food, so let me tell you a bit more about it. Tawlet has been better described as a producer’s kitchen – the same people who grow the food for the farmers’ market Souk El Tayeb cook the food for Tawlet. Like the menu, the chef changes daily. Today, it could be a farmer’s wife, and tomorrow it could be a local cook, but they all use high quality, seasonal produce and dish out some seriously tasty stuff. The food is not cheffy but it’s not boring either. It’s home cooking, all honest and all good, and done really well. The food is served in a buffet and is for a set price : 40,000LL + VAT for open buffet or a reasonable 15,000LL + VAT for a “Business Lunch”. Tawlet likes to celebrate regional cuisine, but from what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t rush to label the food as regional. My general feeling is that true regionality in Lebanon is quite minimal due to the country’s small area – most Lebanese people cook from the same repertoire, with minor variances on recipes, with few exceptions of course. Forgo regionality for seasonality: depending on the time of year and the chef, you could get anything from wonderful makloubeh (eggplant, chicken and rice pilaf with nuts) to mildly spicy sujuk (Armenian sausage) cooked in pomegranate molasses, great salads, soft white beans with coriander and garlic, and eggs with awarma (confitec lamb), all made from prime Lebanese produce. Desserts haven’t failed us yet. If available, try halawet el jibn, a cheese pastry filled with clotted cream and doused with sugar syrup – it’s bloody wonderful – or anything else since it’s all good. There’s a fantastic list of Lebanese wines to boot, and good arak, so if you’re in Beirut, go to Tawlet, and if you’re Lebanese, stick to your mother tongue.
P.S. My deepest apologies for the hipstomatic photos… I couldn’t help it.