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A romantic journey for food in Lebanon's beautiful capital.
The taxi driver looked at the scribbled address as if it were a ransom note. Considering news of gunmen blocking roads and burning tires two nights before in Beirut, where I convinced my non-Lebanese wife to spend half our honeymoon, I worried we were venturing too far from our plush hotel in the heavily secured downtown. But the address itself was the problem; Lebanese citizens get around with directions and landmarks, not numbers. So for 15 minutes, he’d brake and accelerate, shouting “12 Rue Naher?” at pedestrians, until their finger-pointing led us to a lush patio at a grimy street’s dead end.
In the years to come, Mar Mikhaël would become Beirut’s trendiest neighbourhood, but in June 2012 it was a restaurant called Tawlet (tow-lee)—meaning “table”—that lured us with its odd tagline (“Make Food. Not War.”) and beautiful concept. Every day for lunch a different rural matriarch cooks the recipes of her region with the crops of her farm.
Sitting cross-legged in all white, the owner, Kamal Mouzawak, looked like a spiritual guru in the airy room. He led us to a communal table stretching from end to end and poured us a red blend from a rack carrying at least one of Lebanon’s 90-odd wines, most from the Bekaa Valley, where my parents met before immigrating to Alberta. We were joined by Mazen Hajjar, the impassioned producer of 961 Beer, who came to stock the fridge with what’s still the Arab Middle East’s only microbrew. As we sipped his malty red ale and learned how 961 began as a kitchen experiment while the summer-long war of 2006 kept him confined, the table seats filled until the star of the show entered from the kitchen.
Hana Khoutour, from the southern mountain town Jezzine, carried to the buffet table massive platters of velvety eggplant stew called moussaka, a citrusy bean salad and fried kibbeh croquettes stuffed with the country’s staple ingredient (and namesake) labneh. She shyly scooped spiced burghal onto my plate, perhaps intimidated that this party of suits and tourists paid 40,000 liras ($35)—nearing the average daily wage—for her humble offerings. But that’s exactly the appeal. This was not the typical fare of Lebanese restaurants—neither local nor abroad—but rather the homes lucky enough to have a matriarch like Khoutour. Feasting on the flavours of this tiny region with an oversized culinary footprint, I was thankful to have come from one of them.
Distance: 9,848 kmTravel Time: 18 hrs, 20 mins
Check back for more from our Will Travel for Food feature to discover the lengths our food-obsessed writers will go for one perfect bite.