Thursday, November 25, 2010

My two favourite restaurants in Beirut

On the basis of a brief 24 hours acquaintanceship with Beirut I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Tawlet and Seza must be two of the most exciting restaurants in the city. They also happen to be a stone’s throw from each other in the upcoming neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael and each has a kitchen run by women.

Tawlet Souk el Tayeb which opened last year (2009), is the brainchild of food writer Kamal Mouzawak (above) who founded the farmers’ market seven years ago. it was created to showcase the produce from the market and Lebanon’s different regional cooking traditions but also to show how food can unite this war-ravaged country. "It’s about bringing people together who have killed each other for so many years around a common culture and cuisine." as Mouzawak, who heads up Slow Food in the Lebanon, puts it.

Each day a different group of women comes in and cooks the food from their region. On Saturdays there’s a lunchtime buffet which features some 12-15 dishes from all over the country.

The day we were there that included a coarse babaganoush salad with tomatoes, onion and pepper, bastouma (preserved beef rolls stuffed with cheese), aubergines stuffed with garlic, pepper and walnuts, roast cauliflower salad, spicy little sausages and cubes of raw lamb and liver. Like all Lebanese food, colourful, inventive and delicious.

They also stock a wide range of Lebanese wines.

Seza (above) was opened a couple of months ago by Seza Haleblian who describes herself modestly as a ‘good home cook'.

She was looking for something to do because her husband has to spend a lot of time away travelling. “My friends used to always say when they came round to dinner ‘When can we come back?’ I wanted to create a real home-style restaurant but to make dishes that are difficult to make at home.“

Having just had lunch at Tawlet we couldn’t do more than taste a couple of dishes which included some open stuffed dumplings called manti that were served with tomato sauce, yoghurt and sumac, lentil patties and kibbeh with sweet potatoes followed by the most stunning-looking plate of desserts which included a rice pudding with vanilla and cinnamon, a semolina dessert topped with pistachios and grated coconut (meghli) and some Syrian, or I guess Armenian-style - pastries.

Other dishes Seza recommended were the imam bayeldi, itch (a kind of tabbouleh), frogs legs with garlic, coriander and lemon and cabbage leaves and vegetables stuffed with meat and rice (sarma). Oh, and possibly less appealing, patcha a soup made with sheeps feet and veal. Armenian food she says is generally a touch spicier than Lebanese - with more use of pepper.

Such inspiring food makes you want to get straight into the kitchen yourself. I can’t wait to go back.

Tawlet (00 96 (0)1 448129
) Beirut, sector 79
naher street, n˚ 12 (Jisr el hadid)
Chalhoub building, n˚ 22 - Ground floor
Seza (00 96 (0)1 570711) Patriarch Arida Street, Mar Mikhael.

Have you been to Beirut and if so do you have any favourite restaurants to share?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November's blogs of the month

I seem to have less and less time to look at blogs which is a shame as they’re more and more worth dipping into. Here are four that appeal this month:
I can’t remember who mentioned this the other day on Twitter (maybe @eatlikeagirl) but they referred to the great illustrations - and they are. it’s written - and drawn - by Ailbhe, a ‘Dublin-born, London-based graphic designer' and she describes it as ‘a blog about cooking, eating, design and art’. Totally charming

Stir the Pots
A slightly geeky food blog I was put onto by Dan Lepard, mainly but not exclusively about bread (of which there are mouthwatering photographs) but also good goss about chefs and the food business. Jeremy Shapiro, the author, is the head chef of a private gentleman's club in New York. “It's so private, I can't share the name.” Go on - tell us, Jezza!

Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook
The beautifully photographed blog of Lucy Vanel who lives in Lyon in France, full of notes, musings and stunning images. PS how on earth does she get her Blogger blog to look like that? She must be a technical whiz too.

Chocolate Shavings
Confession time. I’m not that into chocolate. I’m one of the rare people who can have a box in the house and take over a week to eat them. But I can see the appeal and if you’re a chocoholic I urge you to take a look at Chocolate Shavings which is written by a Canadian recipe developer, food writer and photographer (can’t find her name online). Yes, more beautiful photos. Sigh.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chateau Tour du Haut Moulin 1999: a classy old claret

I've been ignoring the title of this blog lately which is, of course, Food AND Wine Finds. Trouble is most of my wine reviews go elsewhere. The bargain bottles into Credit Crunch Drinking. The stellar wine matches into Matching Food & Wine and natural wines into my new blog Wine Naturally.

So this blog mops up the rest - bottles like Chateau Tour du Haut Moulin 1999 which are neither cheap, natural or particularly amazing with some dish I've just eaten. But brilliant value for money.

I speak as someone who (somewhat embarrassingly for a wine writer) doesn't have a big thing about Bordeaux. So maybe Bordeaux aficionados won't rate it but I think it's remarkable for the price. The fruit is still vivid, the texture beautifully velvety. When I tasted it at a chef friend's the other day I thought it was at least twice the retail price which is a surprisingly modest £15.99 from Averys of Bristol.

Absolutely worth a try.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chinese Canteen at The Folk House

Another night, another . . . what shall I call it? Pop-up? Guest chef? Theme night? The nomenclature of these impromptu events is getting complicated. Anyway it was a Chinese meal at Bristol's Folk House Café cooked by Lily Wang who is apparently the stepmum of Claire who's a partner in the Cotham wine bar Flinty Red (to fill you in on the local connections). She was born in Beijing but has lived all over China and the food was mainly (I think) Sichuanese.

It was the sort of food you never find in a restaurant - hearty, home-style Chinese cooking. The seasoning was fascinating. There was a platter of fresh vegetables with a yellow bean dip, some green beans with ginger and sesame what was described as beef jerky but which was more like a dry fried beef with spices (star anise was the top note). Really delicious.

I wasn't mad on the soup (egg with edible tree fungus) which was rather glutinous for Western tastes but the fried dumplings - pork and vegetable - were to die for, fragrant and stuffed with filling. I could have stopped there but there was still braised beef (a hearty beef stew with, surprisingly, potatoes), hot and spicy bean curd (possibly home-made), kaofu an earthy dish of mushrooms and bran and chicken rice. Aaaah. The chicken rice. I could eat that every night for a week for supper.

The meal finished with some deep-fried mashed pumpkin balls - hard to imagine from the menu but which were a bit like those banana fritters you used to have in Chinese restaurants. Only nicer.

It felt a privilege to get to eat food like this, so tasty, so wholesome - very much in keeping with the ethos of the Folk House Cafe. Apparently they're planning other evenings including a jazz night and a Persian feast. They have a Facebook page if you want to know what's on.

PS According to Lily “eating a good meal is as worthy as reading a good book, because people can understand the world from the food.” How true.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Jamie’s Italian is brilliant, but . . .

I finally got to my nearest Jamie’s Italian, some 2 years after it opened in Bath. To be honest the tales of the queues had put me off and I probably would have postponed the experience yet again had I not manage to blag a table courtesy of the local Milsom Place PR. (I know. I shouldn’t. But wouldn’t you given the chance?*)

There seemed to be plenty of people ready to brave the hour to an hour and a quarter's wait for a table, happily paying for the pleasure by ordering drinks from the bar (which I'm assuming weren't free).

Is it worth it? Well, yes, if you’re patient it is. It’s far, far better than any other chain I’ve been to from the point of view of food and service and brilliant value for money.

I ordered a ‘plank’ of seasonal meat antipasti (£6.95, above)- easily enough for a meal - which consisted of Tuscan fennel salami, pistachio mortadella, San Daniele prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, pecorino and chilli jam, olives and a great little salad of pickled root veg described by my server as ‘dry coleslaw’ (Jamie’s is wonderfully unintimidating). Followed by a ‘small’ (actually quite large) portion of pasta (though not the advertised pappardelle) with a chunky rustic rabbit sauce (also £6.95) which you’d be hard pushed to get in Italy for the price.

You could - and of course I’m going to - quibble. They should warn you when you’re dining alone that the bread basket (£3.50) is big enough for a table of 4. I suspect the focaccia had been baked the previous day. The wine by the glass could have been fresher and I think they could do better than their rather flabby house Chardonnay which is served from a Tetrapak carton (no problem with that other than its effect on the contents)

And I do wonder if all these queues are strictly necessary. There were a couple of empty tables around me for at least half my meal and they apparently close the top floor during the afternoon when you might stand a chance of getting in without an hour's wait. Could it be that queuing is part of the schtick?

But it’s good, honest, generous food served by incredibly friendly staff. You could take anyone there from a 2 year old to an 82 year old. Not many restaurants out of London offer that - particularly at the price. Good old Jamie.

* I did pay in full for my meal though, in case you were wondering . . .

Have you been to a Jamie's Italian and what did you think?