Such is the sheer size of the Lebanese diaspora scattered across the world, high-class restaurants serving authentic Middle Eastern fayre can be found in virtually all cities and large towns. Indeed, they are as ubiquitous as Irish pubs, but without the Gur cake and Guinness.
Take the stretch of Atlantic Avenue in New York that dissects Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. One Brother Rue, who shall remain nameless, spent many an hour exploring the delights of this famous street that meanders all the way to the borough of Queens.
Eclectic is a word often abused but it can be safely used to sum up Atlantic because all human life inhabits there. Alluring delis co-mingle with trendy hair salons, retro music shops and a vast array of amazing antique stores.
Within the mix there is Sahadi’s, founded in 1890 but moved from Manhattan in the 1940s when it became heaven away from home for connoisseurs of imported Middle Eastern food. With spices laid out in souq-like splendour it is impossible to avoid the aroma from the sidewalk outside. Sahadi’s sells more than a hundred regional cheeses, offers olive oil by the gallon, lavash flatbread by the foot and tahini by the tonne. Oh, and coffee of course.
It is therefore the kindest compliment of all that this trip along Memory Lane was stirred by Assaha Lebanese Village restaurant, nestled off Airport Street (also known by some as Al Matar Street or even Airport Road) just before Grand Hamad Street. It would be granted the warmest of Arabic welcomes on Atlantic Avenue.
For now, there are five Assaha establishments, in Doha, Khartoum, Kuwait City, London and, naturally, in Beirut, which opened with visionary verve in 2002 when the brand was born. Assaha’s owners regard their properties as special projects supporting the re-use of ancient natural stones, wood and old equipment that have significance steeped in tradition.
Not many hospitality groups can boast a section on their website devoted to “architectural theories” so Brothers Rue thought it pertinent to share the Assaha philosophy:
This renewal process actually offers a wide variety of visually appealing designs such as the yokes, the oil jars and the modern display of archaeological collections. However, some ancient elements keep their original and historical functions in their contemporary usage. Actually, some of those elements are the rosettes, apertures, windows, arches, channels, and decorative elements. Those features definitely reflect the traditional and historical beauty that a space could acquire.’
This dedicated attention to detail was immediately apparent on arrival. Eyes will wander almost involuntarily upon exploration, but do not miss the collection of antique radio sets at the entrance, the assortment of vintage teddy bears (we kid you not) caringly
given an alcove apiece from which to peer at patrons and the clusters of guns and swords. Artefacts abound, as abundant as the food that awaits.
When it comes to restaurants we don’t subscribe to the adage that you cannot judge a book by its cover. If one is busy, particularly if it is frequented by locals, we will enter. And Assaha’s montage of photographs taken of diners down the years, ranging from the most eminent within Emiri circles to discerning diplomats, was especially reassuring.
Indeed, we were greeted like royalty and, as we blushed repeatedly, we were treated like kings when the banquet arrived. It quickly became evident why Samir Makki, the ever-attentive and affable executive manager, directed us to a table for eight.
We knew ordering would be no ordeal because within seconds of sitting comfortably a huge bowl of fresh vegetables appeared, from which spruce spring onions, crisp lettuce leaves, sticks of celery and suitably hot and bulbous radishes refreshed the palate.
Then the dreamy dishes began to arrive en masse. We gorged on perfectly cooked chicken livers, seldom served these days so we devoured with delight. It was classic Levantine largesse. Makanek (Lebanese sausages) were joined by Kibbeh, Hummus, Muhammara (roasted red pepper, garlic, pomegranate molasses) served with walnuts, Moutabel (aubergine and tahini) and Tabbouleh.
Only the pictures with this review, rather than these measly mentions by Brothers Rue, can illustrate the enormity of our task. Fried cheese rolls, which were invitingly delicate, wonderful fried potato with garlic and fresh green chilli, a melodious mixed salad with pomegranate and Lebanese lamb patties laced with spices between oven-baked bread that, without hesitation, were declared the best “burgers” in town (sorry, chef). Lamb sujuk (spiced sausage) was another sensation.
We would normally call for a time-out at this stage but there was no restaurant referee with a whistle. As plates were whisked away post-haste, another opulent platter quickly appeared. So, with eyes now larger than stomachs, we gaped at a grilled Omani lobster, prepared à la thermidor, but with a creamy béchamel sauce.
Deliciously baked Sultan Ibrahim (red snapper) with herbs appeared to look up in unison, perhaps at the teddy bears observing another picnic at which they were uninvited. With whole fish there is a tendency to over-salt the skin, but not here.
Huge Omani shrimp, again grilled with utmost care and attention, completed the festival in honour of local fish. More fresh bread, one stuffed with parsley, tomato, chilli and onion, and the other with mashed potato and garlic, had one Brother Rue searching for a white towel to throw because he could no longer defend himself.
During this time, the glistening meat (there must have been a kilo) was being kept obligingly hot above charcoal-fired hot plates. As any discerning devotee of Middle Eastern kebabs will tell you, the secret is in the marinade. In spite of slowing down appreciably before grinding to a halt, we ate fantastic sweet chicken, flavoursome lamb, great Chicken Adana and lamb chops that could have been masticated without a mandible.
We summoned Samir (again) to help us wander upstairs through Qatar’s most quirky gem of a restaurant and returned to find a heaving fruit bowl along with a selection of sweets and custards. We pecked away with panache as staff were contemplating whether we were sumo wrestlers in training.
Valet parking is available, and probably essential, but we left the Rue-mobile about a mile away. A pleasantly cool autumnal stroll to Assaha seemed a good idea. We were not so sure on the gradually decelerating dawdle back, both vowing to follow feast with famine.
© Marhaba Information Guide 2016. The Rue Brothers review restaurants exclusively for Marhaba. They have spent a combined 40+ years in Qatar and think they know their onions, and kofta kebabs, by now
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