A year ago, chef Chad Houser of Parigi and his freelance-writer buddy Randy Potts decided to take a trip together. Houser mentioned Tel Aviv and Potts started googling restaurants along the eastern Mediterranean. Tawlet kept popping up, a farm-to-table restaurant in Beirut owned by Kamal Mouzawak, dubbed by the NYT as the “Alice Waters of the Middle East.” Potts emailed Kamal about Houser and the possibility of him cooking in Beirut as a guest chef.
Today they landed in Beirut. For the next two weeks the duo will tour the farm-to-table scene in Lebanon with Kamal Mouzawak. We will carry Randy’s updates and Chad’s pictures here on SideDish.
Beirut sits on the Mediterranean, sandwiched between the sea and the mountains. In the same view you can see sand and palm trees, and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains and ski resorts, only a few hours drive away. The city is full of pale white high rise buildings with balconies covered with lines of laundry hanging out to dry. It is loud. Some streets smell like piss or a fishy smell from the sea. Then suddenly you turn a corner and the street will remind you of New Orleans or Paris or Southern Italy – pink and green buildings, gables on the balcony, cafes, Vespas weaving through the cars. But the sight of policemen wearing fatigues and police stations surrounded with sandbags are unnerving.
We meet Kamal Mouzawak at his house. A common joke in Lebanon is that Kamal’s name is in the New York Times more often than the Lebanese President. Kamal’s apartment in Beirut is fittingly beautiful – arched windows overlooking palm trees, 20-foot ceilings, and an eclectic mix of Bauhaus furniture such as hand-crafted couches and tables pulled from old warehouses. He is warm, gentle, and to the point shoeless. He sits reclined on his sofa surrounded by two assistants with laptops at the ready and he launches into a conversational, informal conference of sorts. Tomorrow we will visit the market. The day after, Houser will cook at his villa an hour to the north. The day after that, we will visit two farms. And so on. Jet-lagged, we are both stunned, excited and breathless and starving. So, to Bouboush.
We take a 20-minute walk through the city to Bouboush, a kitschy, homey bistro Kamal has recommended. As we walk, we swerve to avoid speeding Vespas and pass the new bars popping up in the city. Suddenly we spy Kamal in the road. He is waving a car to a stop and sticking his head in the passenger window, kissing two children’s faces which eagerly kiss him back. “Yalla! Kei-fak! Bon jour! Come with us, we are going to Bouboush, come, you must come!” Mom and two kids agree, and now our party is seven. We begin eating around 10 p.m.
At Bouboush, Kamal orders a spread – thin Lebanese pita, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, chicken shawarma, lamb shawarma, and hummus. The chicken shawarma is wrapped in pita and stuffed with several French fries, a yogurt sauce, and enough garlic to kill a dozen vampires. It is a revelation. Gyros in Dallas are a nice greasy snack sometimes; chicken shawarma in Lebanon, which from a distance look like just another gyro, is an experience. Everything at Bouboush is amazing; it feels like before this we’d eaten Lebanese food in black and white, and here it is live, in Technicolor. Nothing on the menu is new, and yet, nothing tastes quite like anything we’ve ever eaten before.
We walk back through the noisy Friday night streets of Beirut filled with cars honking, bars hopping, and walk doggedly up the three flights of stairs to Kamal’s around midnight after 24 hours of travel. We must rest. Tomorrow: the market.