Before I begin this review, allow me a disclaimer.
My great-grandfather was allegedly Lebanese (a sordid story for another time involving sailors and loose great-grandmothers with a penchant for seamen, yes I said it) but this does not mean that I am an expert in all things East Mediterranean. The reason for this disclaimer is that all of my ‘worldly’ food-loving compatriots recommended the Benmore restaurant as “the most authentic Lebanese chow in Jo’burg”. Whether “most authentic” means tastiest I was yet to discover, but I had only heard good things about Beirut (the city and the restaurant) and was pumped to shuf it.
As soon as we walked in (two gingers in our company) we were obviously the tourists. Every table was teeming with real Lebanese people. This is usually a good thing when visiting an ethnic eatery. You can generally judge the quality of a Chinese restaurant by the number of Chinese people eating there, and if the same rule applies to Lebanese restaurants, Beirut is phenomenal.
Now my favourite thing about eating food from this part of the world (i.e. the Med in general) is mezze. Sharing a couple of plates with the table is the most social way to consume food and always makes for a less formal eating experience, plus there’s no order envy as everyone gets to eat everything. Mezze, tapas or antipasto is definitely the way to quite literally, share a meal with friends.
We ordered a range of delicious sounding things: the mandatory baba ghannouj (which according to a friend is the best he’s ever tasted), mouajanat: a platter of mixed pies, hommus (exactly like hummus I’m told), flat bread, halloumi, a couple of lamb shwarmas, some chicken livers and a plate of msakkaa.
Now, where to begin? The halloumi was delicious. Yes, it is from Cyprus but the Lebs eat it too and they obviously know how to cook it. The flat bread was an excellent friend to a tasty hommus dip and the lamb shwarmas were brilliant in an ‘if I was eating this at three in the morning my head would explode’ kind of way. The msakkaa was… well it wasn’t the moussaka I remember from my short time in Athens. As a certified anti-moussaka man (it’s like a lame lasagna slash shepherd’s pie when I could be eating another giro) I thought that the msakkaa was the baba ghannouj until about halfway through the evening.
And thus begins my ignorance of Lebanese cuisine.
The name moussaka apparently comes from the Arabic musaqqa?a meaning ‘chilled’. The Arabic version of the dish is a cooked mash of tomatoes and brinjal that is then served cold. It wasn’t bad on the flat bread; it just wasn’t what I was expecting.
The baba ghanoush, while being the food with the best name in history, tasted quite boring to be honest, although I ate it by the spoonful anyway.
The mouajanat were good, we only ordered half a dozen so we each got one and mine resembled a mini Woolies mini pizza, but I definitely scored over my friend who got some pastry with absolutely nothing in it. We dubbed this the ‘air pie’ and decided it must be some Eastern good luck pie that is served once a night, bestowing its recipient with a thousand blessings. Lucky James.
Last and certainly least, were the chicken livers. I love chicken livers. Just so you know that this isn’t coming from a place of chicken liver prejudice. But these particular chicken livers smelled AND TASTED exactly, and I’m not exaggerating, hyperbolising, sensationalising or trying to be funny, like my dog Lucy mid-bath.
Nonetheless, eager not to offend, I stomached a pile of wet dog fowl innards and washed it down with beer.
I think that everyone should engage in a unique cultural experience at least once a month. Beirut was mine. I enjoyed the night, the service was friendly and attentive and the food was… different. Kind of Greek but spelled funny (and in the case of the livers, smelled funny). Maybe my undying love for Greek cuisine, brought me into the world of Lebanese cooking with a preconceived idea of what certain dishes are supposed to taste like, maybe I’m just an uncultured ‘Western’ fool, maybe the air pie wasn’t so lucky after all.
Now, I’m sure that this review has done nothing more than expose my ignorance of other cultures, but ladies and gentlemen, I know a wet dog when I taste one.
So if you’re worldly and wise and a fan of Lebanese food, Beirut is the place to go.
You’ll like this if you’re well travelled or well constituted. You won’t like this if you think ‘foreign’ is having a cappuccino with froth and not cream.
Beirut was reviewed by Like Father Like Son.