A day in Gemmayzeh

A day in Gemmayzeh

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

Every city has them: down-at-heel no-go zones that are suddenly and surprisingly reborn as chic, ultradesirable neighbourhoods where real estate becomes ‘prime’ seemingly overnight, changing hands for ridiculous sums of money.

In Beirut, this is Gemmayzeh, a small, semi-industrial neighbourhood just east of Downtown. The suburb was close enough to the action to catch some of the sniper fire and mortar shells that rained on Beirut during the long civil war years. And here and there among the pastel-painted French-era apartment buildings, with their shutters and balconies, the occasional half-collapsed building remains, its shrapnel-scarred façade overgrown with creepers and weeds.

So far, Gemmayzeh has missed out on Solidere’s prettifying ministrations, and it retains much of the flavour of Old Beirut. It’s a little shabby, certainly, but hidden away in its laneways and alleys you can still spy triple-arched traditional Lebanese houses and the curved marble balustrades of ornate nineteenth-century villas.

We met Michel and Eli, the two brothers who would be our drivers for the next two weeks, and as it was getting close to lunchtime we asked them to drive us to Le Chef, a small ‘workers’ café on Gemmayzeh’s Rue Gouraud. Over its long history Le Chef has become something of a Beirut institution, renowned for its cheap and cheerful home-style cooking.

We crawled through the congested outskirts of East Beirut before hitting a traffic jam on Rue Gouraud. Cars were converging on us from every direction – sleek BMWs and shiny sedans edging down from affluent Achrafiyeh on the hillside above Gemmayzeh; from below us, delivery trucks and motorbikes honking aggressively and forcing their way through the narrow, potholed streets. All par for the course on a busy working day in Beirut.

Le Chef is halfway along Rue Gouraud, amongst roller-doored commercial premises and the moody jazz bars and French cafés that have sprung up in the Gemmayzeh in recent years. There’s not an ounce of chic to be found at Le Chef, however. Small and dimly lit, with maybe ten tables, its walls are panelled with dark wood and plastered with faded newspaper cuttings and gaudy murals. Tables are clothed in plastic, and the lime-green net curtains look as if they’ve been there since the restaurant opened in the late 1960s. Behind the bar, the shelves are loaded with jars of pickles and dusty bottles of arak.

We arrived in the middle of the lunchtime rush and so had to wait our turn between lanky students and a group of loud businessmen, but from our position by the door we had a perfect view of the action. Regulars were greeted, tables constantly rearranged and customers good-humouredly shuffled up to make room for new arrivals. A team of waiters ducked and weaved among the diners, unloading dishes of tabbouleh and steaming bowls of chicken and rice as they hurried to and from the kitchen.

The turnover was thankfully brisk, and within a few minutes we were tightly packed into a corner table with menus in hand. Seconds later plates of bread, olives and radishes were tossed onto our table, along with our drinks order.

Le Chef has been serving home-style fare here for nearly forty years and until recently it was the only restaurant on Rue Gouraud. It’s run by father and son team François and Charbel Bassil, with François in the kitchen and Charbel directing proceedings on the floor.

‘Alors, les plats du jour,’ Charbel announced, clearly spotting us as tourists and recommending the daily specials. He called the orders out to the kitchen as we made up our minds, and we were soon tucking into chiche barak, little lamb-filled dumplings in a hot yoghurt soup; makloube, an upside-down dish of eggplant, chicken and rice; lamb kebabs and crisp fried fish. The food at Le Chef is definitely not haute cuisine, but nor does it have any pretensions to be so. What François Bassil cooks and loves is comfortable, old-fashioned, home-style food, rather than the fussy little mezze dishes that fancy Lebanese restaurants offer.

‘Mezze is what we eat on Sundays or for special celebrations,’ Charbel explained. ‘It is not what we eat every day. The chiche barak or the chicken with rice – this is what your grandmother makes at home. It is the real Lebanese food.’ The following week we had a hankering for some more comfort food. As we walked through the door of Le Chef, Charbel recognised us and, thrusting menus into our hands and briskly wiping our table, exclaimed, ‘Bonjour les Australiens. You are welcome back to Le Chef!’

Just down the street, but firmly at the other end of the style spectrum, is a hip little bistro with similar ambitions of bringing home-cooked food into a restaurant environment, although it is presented with more contemporary flair. This is La Tabkha, the latest brainchild of a trio of ambitious young entrepreneurs who already have their fingers in a slew of other pies around the city.

La Tabkha – which loosely translates as ‘the casserole pot’ – was starting to fill when we arrived for an early lunch. The sun poured in through the bistro’s large windows, making the room with its funky mustard-yellow colour scheme even more bright and cheerful. We ordered a couple of cold Almaza beers while a friendly waiter explained the system: we could order from the day’s specials or, for a fixed price, help ourselves to the buffet selection of cold dishes that filled a long central table.

I started at the buffet, choosing some delicious-looking fried cauliflower, vegetarian vine leaves, blanched silverbeet with tahini sauce and potato kibbeh. Greg looked up enviously from his spicy tomato and lentil soup. ‘We need some more laban,’ he announced, turning to the waiter, and a dish of creamy yoghurt, drizzled with local olive oil, arrived at our table in an instant.

We had decided to pass on pudding, but changed our minds when we saw the couple at the next table tucking into a plate of aish al saraya. It’s best described as like tiramisu, with a syrup-soaked base of breadcrumbs topped with thick clotted cream and chopped pistachios.

The stylish young man seated next to us smiled and nodded knowingly as he saw us fighting over the last luscious morsel. It transpired that this was Fadi Sabah, one of the co-owners of the restaurant, and he took us behind the scenes to meet his mother, the head chef.

The kitchen was a hive of industry. A bevy of white-capped women were busily packing take-away orders into neat cardboard boxes and dispatching them to a team of delivery boys on mopeds, as La Tabkha does a roaring take-away trade with nearby offices and apartment buildings. ‘I think people are sick of sandwiches,’ Fadi said with a smile. His mother told us she was from Falougha in the mountains. ‘I learnt my cooking from my mother,’ she told us matter-of-factly, ‘and she learnt it from her mother.’

We definitely needed a spot of post-prandial exercise after enjoying Fadi’s mother’s home cooking, so we headed out for a walk around the neighbourhood. The relative quiet of Rue Gouraud’s bars and antique shops was broken when we passed a vacant block where a crumbling building was being demolished by an army of bulldozers. Peace resumed when we left Rue Gouraud to climb the historic Saint Nicholas steps that rise up the hill to Rue Sursock, famed for its colonial villas. The steps are flanked by crumbling apartment buildings and as we climbed we were close enough to reach out and touch their peeling plasterwork. Through an open window we saw an old man shuffling around his kitchen in his pyjamas. An old lady was watering the plants on her balcony and all around us were canaries swinging in tiny cages. Pausing to catch our breath, we looked back across the rooftops through a tangle of cabling to the Mediterranean, shimmering in the distance.

We wound our way downhill along a narrow street paved with flagstones, and arrived back on Rue Gouraud in the late afternoon. The street was quieter now, and at La Tabhka a youth was busily washing the outside windows while a group of kitchen hands hung around the rear doorway smoking cigarettes. While we watched, a takeaway box appeared through a serving hatch and then the leather-clad delivery boy sped off down the road.

Recipes in this Chapter

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