Beirut : Restaurant Review
2.75 stars out of 5 (Close to Good)
Visited September 2017
Auckland, New Zealand
An American at Beirut in Auckland... this transcontinental pastiche momentarily threw me off as the young lady from Trumpland (to be fair, she could also be Trudeau's girl, I'm not sure) at the reception, briskly informed us that she'd check for tables and then dived inside the restaurant. Lebanon, as you know, is not what it once was and people like Robert Redford from 'Spygame', despite their spectacular performance, haven't done the place's hospitability any favours either. So although our "hosts" did not have the manners to first seat us in the waiting area, we took our seats in the dark, deserted, commodious, high-ceilinged bar and awaited. The bartender, in an exotic world of his own, did not engage us either.
Unfazed, we settled on a cocktail 'Rue Hamra" which sported such niceties as Pierre Fernand 1840 cognac, apricot liquer, egg white, red wine syrup and whatnot. The helpful tagline had said "rich and fruity" and if I had paid closer attention to it, we might have avoided this rather astringent concoction in favour of the opulent and perfumed "Black Rose".
We were seated at a table for two just in front of the exposed kitchen, which might have been nice if it afforded us a ringside view of the kitchen action but the high kitchen counter ensured that visuals of dish prep were cut out and you just saw the faces of the chefs. Uninspiringly, we were not in John Cassavetes' 1968 mood.
Delightfully wheaty, oven-fresh Afghan flatbread was requisitioned as the show-opener. 'Twas paired with something even better - a beautifully perfumed and dulcet rose petal jam further scented with pistachios, nestling in a moat rimmed by a little fortress of "burnt" butter. If this was Beirut, the other starter was Saudi Arabia - bigger but with lesser flavour. A generous cylinder of scorched flatbread hemmed in a well of moderately interesting smoked yoghurt labna, through which a date syrup did not adequately ripple.
We asked for Kingfish Kibbeh but were informed that they had run out, and could we instead try their off-the-menu octopus ? This scares off many people, understandably, but my thinking was - if you can nail an octopus dish both in tenderness and flavouring, you are leagues ahead of many chefs. Hitherto, I have eaten only one memorable octopus dish - tender, succulent, and superbly spiced - in my life, in Sydney's Marque - the others have been chewy travesties. I wonder whether Beirut realized the the level of challenge they had voluntarily undertaken when offering octopus, but I don't think this kitchen thinks or plans that much. This became obvious with the horror show of the octopus dish - the tentacle was served as a big ring, and to eat a piece you had to use your knife first. Provided a child insists on only using proper utensil etiquette, it can be safely averred that this dish then becomes child-proof - the child will never have the strength to slice off a piece. I saw my grown-up companion struggling to do so, and got the hint early on. The texture was pathetically rubbery, the taste a phantom, and as the acrid cherry on a spoilt cake, the spice-rub on top was a impish prank of pink peppercorns making a piquantly rough hash of it all. My bigger regret is that my own action was worse than that of the chefs - I did not have the sense to send it back to the kitchen. If they had protested, all one had to do was to ask them to taste it themselves.
"My" main course obliterated that trauma quickly. Roasted Hapuka was adequately tender, and the fish was the marquee on a plate stylishly loaded with all kinds of designer touches. Turnip ribbons mimicked bacon, while petite tender cuts of carrots and radishes were arranged as scarves and towers. A smoked carrot puree was a bold cloud of flavour, recalling the terrific chill-garlic orange chutneys of South India.
Our waitresses were young ladies who had diligently memorized the menu and would promptly check with the kitchen when they could not provide answers to some dish queries. But charm and a sense of pampering supervision, which is distinctly and expertly different from servitude or over-attention, is missing in Beirut. It's clear that the owner checks all the boxes with a cold efficiency but only accords low priority to real hospitality.
My companion had asked for slow-braised goat but as they had run out, lamb was then ordered. Big hunks of it were generously offered, but with all the tension that suffuses Beirut, who can be blamed if the lamb is scared stiff ? This was the case here, with the meat so tough that the mere act of slicing it off finally was a triumph in itself. I wanted my companion to enjoy the evening, so I offered an exchange of mains even though I have abjured lamb once and for all more than a year ago. Breaking my ethical pledge took precedence in my karmic meter as I visualized myself leaping through the carnage to push my companion out of the way of the culinary bullets of Beirut. Neither sauce or vegetables on the plate had adequate caliber to offer any mollification. A bit of the cocktail still lingered in the senses and the haze was used to somehow clear off two-thirds of the punishing meat. But I still kicked myself in the end - why oh why hadn't I told them how messed up the dish was ? Teacher, I promise I will not let it happen next time.
The evening ended with a underwhelming dessert of a wan brown butter cake insufficiently propped up by a peach ice-cream. Our mercurial experience, however, seemed disconnected to the copious business that Beirut attracts. Nice downtown location, a trendy modern-Arabic decor, variety of booze and stylishly presented food of decent quantity...all adds up to a hit formula with the crowd, from what we witnessed on two separate evenings.
Our second visit underscored why a restaurant should not judged by a single visit (extreme cases aside). To be specific, the second visit is a good example of how a wider understanding of a restaurant can, in certain cases such as this one, elevate its rating by an extra half star (I'm not doing cartwheels of course but the assessment acquires more weight).The waitress, different this time, ran the floor better and had better communications skills. The kitchen performed moderately better. Round Two of dinner for two with drinks added another $150 to the tariff (appetizers $16, mains $30, dessert $15).
Stylishly presented chicken Shawarma had shed its usual wheaty jacket and was now exposed in gauzy shameless veils of cucumber. Lambasted over fire, these acquired a smoky charcoal exterior and a moderately chewy mouthfeel, further bolstered by dabs of tabasco-like sauce and another saucy raw-mango number. Though devoid of succulence or delicate nuance, this was still agreeably bold without overstating its case.
Cauliflower was grilled with Muhammara butter, with tender hulks of it spread out like meat. This timidly flavoured appetizer could not however hold a candle to, say, a single floret of cornflour-fried cauliflower or a definitely dry Gobi Manchurian.
Supermodel looks introduced the Kingfish Kibbeh Nayeh which was available this time. Lovely petals of nashi pear were folded over brunoised, lightly dressed kingfish. Though a light hand with flavours was again in evidence here, it was much better suited to this cool refreshing affair, versions of which have become a fixture in Auckland's haute-dining over the years. Undoubtedly successful as a ceviche/tartare, I also wish a petal or two could have kept aside to show an alternative jousting with kingfish cooked more to better express its piscine personality.
It had by now become amply clear that this chef knows how to cook well, and even how to send some hits ambling close to the the park perimeter, with controlled flavours and spiffy presentations. Gentle spices, citrus and garlic canoodle with cream, honey and bread to create a middle-brow medley of flavours. But if it's mind-blowing Middle-Eastern umami you crave, you may not be in great luck.
The carnage wreaked by the lamb, seemed to have been petitely, stylishly outgrown by the slow-cooked goat. Presented as three cozy little cylinders, topped by cherry-like heads of radishes, I could not taste them due to my mammal-sparing ethic (gastronomically not personally), but it could be clearly witnessed that my companion's fork went through those meaty tournedos almost like through butter. The meat fell apart in fibrils. My companion was impressed by this, and on specific questioning, reported the meat to be damp rather than moist (a common complication of treating presenting meat like this) but tasty nonetheless.
"Winter Tabbouleh" suffered for want of savoury heft. The generously portioned dish seemed more along the lines of horsefeed than loving main course. There was a sea of Lebanese couscous in a watery tart pool, covered by strand upon strand upon strand of characterless kohlrabi. Goat's cheese in the centre provided miserably musky notes.
"Middle Eastern Sweet Sharing plate" alas did not disburse much joy, with mediocre baklava, even worse orange cookies, and beautifully marinated dates that could not manage to resurrect enough of an oasis.
The final requested offering, mercifully, was a qualified marvel of textures and icy delight. Buttermilk ice-cream formed the creamy heart and shards of meringue gave variety to the bite. But the real chilled scorcher was the flavour of "Turkish delight" Ice, which provided a most inveigling Arabic seduction with caresses of rose and other scented kisses of pistachio-'n'-candied walnut. This composition came in-built with Wahhabi checks to rising Sufi mysticism - just when the pleasure would climax, the crushed ice would become so stunningly cold that it would painfully freeze your teeth and palate.