Monday, January 03, 2011

Beirut is Back on the Map

Our epic adventure through The Levant began in the fun-loving city of Beirut, Lebanon's bustling capital on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. Beirut is red hot these days having topped the NY Times' list of places to go in 2009. The "Paris of the Middle East" has been featured in CNTravelers, Financial Times, and Sunday Times Travel as the next big tourist destination thanks to the recent political stability and its legendary nightlife.  There's not a whole lot to see in terms of tourist sights in Beirut, but the city and the urban fabric itself is fascinating. If you're itching to get out of the city, just an hour or so (traffic permitting) south, north, or east of Beirut, you can visit the old historic cities of Sidon, Byblos, Tripoli, and the ruins of Baalbeek and Anjaar, and even go wine tasting or skiing in winter.
We left for Beirut on the 15th December, right before the big snowstrom hit Europe shutting down Heathrow and Frankfurt airports for several days. Our five nights in Beirut was marked by two special occasions: our friend's Beirut wedding celebration and the 2010 IASTE conference organised by colleagues at UC Berkeley and the American University of Beirut (AUB). It was a lot of fun catching up with my favourite  professors, old colleagues, and dear friends from Berkeley, many whom we haven't seen since May 2009.

Highlights from our time in Beirut:

Walking Tour of the City - We spent a gorgeous sunny afternoon on a walking tour with several AUB faculty members starting from the AUB campus along the seaside Corniche to the Place d'Etoile in the Beirut Central District, through Saifi Village, and ending at the hip and lively neighborhood of Gemmayzeh.
Along the Corniche:

It's an interesting time to be in Beirut -- the city is full of contradictions. You'll see visible damage of bullet holes on old crumbling buildings juxtaposed against glitzy luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Intercontinental Hotel. The company, Solidere, founded by the former late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 1994, has special powers of eminent domain granted by the government and is responsible for the planning and the redevelopment of Beirut Central District since the end of Lebanese Civil War. The entire Downtown is now restored with over 200 buildings dating back from the Ottoman period and the French Mandate, along with high-end shopping at the Souqs Project.

Old and new buildings in Downtown Beirut:
Nearby is also the Mohammad al-Amin mosque built in the Ottoman style of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; St. George's Cathedral; and the restored Roman baths -- all sights not to miss on your walking tour of Beirut.
Heavenly Food - I've been on a Fattoush (Lebanese salad with toasted pita bread and sprinkle of sumac) kick lately since returning from the Middle East. Beirutis are serious about their food in all forms from cheap eats to haute cuisine. We were fortunate to sample everything from delicious cold mezzes (hummous, baba ghanouj, mutabbel) and hot mezzes (kibbeh, shish taouk, batata harra); kibbeh nayye (Lebanese tartar); shawarmas; lamb kebabs; manaessh (Lebanese pizzas with za'atar, tomatoes, cheese, and cucumbers aka "cocktail") at National Bakeries on Bliss Street; fitayer (spinach pastry); labneh (thick yogurt with olive oil and sea salt); lahmeh bi ajine (little pies) to name a few of Lebanon's culinary delights.  
We also spent Saturday morning at Beirut's first farmers market, Souk El Tayeb, and ate our weight in delicious goodness, followed by excellent ice cream at foodie haven, Gruen in the Hamra District with another fellow Bay Area native, Clare. I am not a big fan of Middle Eastern or Indian sweets, but I do love my ice cream!
Celebrations & Reunions - As I mentioned earlier, Keenan and I spent a lot time catching up with old friends who were in town for both the IASTE conference and the wedding celebration. Many memorable meals were shared with friends, including a 7am breakfast date at the Gefinor Rotana Hotel with Mej, a kebab feast with Stefan at Al-Kabaji, and charcuterie lunch of meats and cheese at Ksara Winery with Mina, and of course several late nights over cold Almaza beers at smokey alleyway bars in Hamra.

Of course the highlight of this trip was attending Mona & JC's wedding celebration. But before the wedding party, the bride's cousin, NY-based food writer Salma Abdelnour, organised a ladies-only culinary event at Tawlet (affiliated with Souk El Tayeb) for an evening of cooking, eating, and sharing this special time with the beautiful bride-to-be and her lovely mother and mother-in-law. What a great evening!
The chef taught us how to prep and cook several regional Lebanese specialties. After an hour and half long cooking session, we all sat down for a delightful meal featuring tabbuleh (salad of parsley, bulgar wheat, tomatoes, and mint); hummous; baba ghanouj; shish barak (dough balls stuffed with meat cooked in yogurt); and saiyadit al-Samaki (rice and fish specialty from Tyre).  Sah’tain! (Bon Appetit in Lebanese Arabic)

The boys also took JC out for his "Last Supper" at AbdelWahab el-Inglizi in Achrafiye for a feast of dazzling mezzes and arak, an anise-flavoured liqueur, typically served at traditional convivial Lebanese meals. Set an old Ottoman house in a charming neighborhood, the restaurant received raving reviews from Keenan -- two-thumbs up. His only regret was not eating more!

Sunday was the big celebration. The stunning bride and the handsome groom and their parents hosted a beautiful celebration at Hussein Hadid's Kitchen (yes, he is the nephew of the architect Zaha Hadid). The venue was gorgeous and  the food was amazingly delicious. Guests feasted on keftas, kebabs, bite-size manaesh among other yummy mezzes, all washed down with excellent Lebanese wine. We weren't shy about getting second or third rounds either, and the desserts, presented in miniature shot glasses, were equally divine. Tummies happy, we spent the rest of the evening on the dance floor with the bride and groom. Mabrook to the happy couple!
In addition to enjoying the city, Keenan and I also made two separate day-trips whilst our academic friends were slaving away at the conference: first to Byblos and another to Baalbeek with our good friend Mina. Byblos (Jbail), a coastal town just 45 minutes north of Beirut, is filled with Roman ruins, a Crusader castle built by the Franks in the 12th century, along with  a small souk, and a lovely harbour. It was a nice way to spend a leisurely afternoon, but if your time is short in Lebanon and can only do one day-trip, visit the the ruins of Baalbeek, which deserves a separate post altogether.  

In Byblos:

I hope this gives you an insight our time in this fantastic city. As you can guess, we did a lot of eating! If you need restaurant recommendations, I am sure my friends would be happy to share their knowledge of their beloved city, Beyrouth. For now, visit Salma's website  on eating and drinking in Beirut.
More to come from the Middle East....stay tuned.

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