Richard H Turner's column: on the beauty of Beirut
The globetrotting chef and author heads to Lebanon, where he finds silky hummus, theatrical cooking, and a celeb diner with her own private militia
As the epicenre of Middle Eastern cuisine, Lebanon is the country that all other Arabic nations look to, much as we once looked to France. Its capital, Beirut, is smart and cosmopolitan, packed with high-end restaurants and a wealthy, fashion-conscious elite.
But beneath this chic exterior Beirut is still a tinderbox; instability the norm. Throughout its one-hundred-year history, the accord of the city has been shattered from time to time by the crack of gunfire; bullet holes still pockmark the buildings nearly three decades after its 15-year civil war ended.
It's not my first time in Lebanon. My previous visit to the country was on a shawarma crawl through the Middle East, and I found the Lebanese versions of these ubiquitous spit-roasted meat delicacies cleaner and less dominated by lemon juice than elsewhere, with regional herbs and spices like za'atar, cumin and sumac to the fore.
This time I'm here with Hawksmoor executive chef Matt Brown, to cook for two nights at a local steakhouse, Skirt, whose owners are friends of ours. We rustle up some Hawksmoor favourites to promote our new book, Hawksmoor: Restaurants & Recipes, including tea and buns (with beef tea, bone marrow buns and caviar), charcoal-grilled porterhouse steak and sticky toffee apple tatin.
Among the guests is local celebrity chef Athanasios 'Tommy' Kargatzidis. Tommy is quite a character and after dinner he invites us to his gaff, Baron, to return the compliment. The next day we're treated to a masterclass in cooking, presented on the stage of his open kitchen. We're as much the audience as we are diners, with nothing to separate us from the busy bustle. There's a small terrace off the main dining space, with a fire pit and lounge seating and if you fancy a cocktail, it's made at a trolley in front of you.
The distinctive menu arranges dishes by their principal component: vegetable, seafood, meat, and sweets. With nearly a dozen items under each header – from cauliflower with shawarma spices, tahini-tartare, walnut salsa, and rose petals to Chilean sea bass with soujouk, pepper marmalade and smoked tomato sauce – it's not easy to choose. Luckily we don't have to, as Tommy wheels out the 'chef's menu'; strapline: Let the kitchen decide.
First up are two slices of pain de campagne with what I can best describe as a cross between Moroccan harissa and Syrian muhammara, which lands on our table as we dive into a bottle of Lebanese red wine.
Photograph: Getty images
At Baron, we're as much the audience as we are diners
Grilled corn on the cob, slathered with feta cream and coriander, arrives soon after, the waiter shaving off the bulbs of the corn into a large plate at the table. Beside the corn lies lamb merguez with tri-coloured bell peppers in a tangy balsamic glaze, accompanied by a scoop of explosive feta mousse.
Next up is calamari smothered with zhoug, a Yemeni hot green pepper relish, but it's somewhat overshadowed by the masterpiece: braised beef short rib, sliced into thin shavings and stuffed inside bao steamed buns with hoisin, chili, pickled cucumber, spiced crushed almonds and coriander.
Our sweet is that quintessential Hellenic pastry, baklava, stuffed with walnut nougatine and mastic nigella seed ice cream, accentuated by candied rose petals. We follow that up with chocolate cream puff: dark chocolate ice cream in a cloud of whipped cream, both fresh and sans sucre. Absolutely bloody marvellous.
The theatrical chef's menu at Baron would be a tough act to follow anywhere, but lunch the next day offers up a show of sorts. While ploughing through a bowl of the most silken hummus with warm, singed flatbread, I become aware of a couple of chunky, bearded fellas to my left – their features are etched fierce; mouths arced in permanent scowls. They stand bolt upright either side of a shop doorway, biceps as thick as my thighs straining under tailor made suits. The tell-tale focus and keen attention of close protection makes them conspicuous, at least to me. These are the show ponies, there to make sure everyone knows how important the principal is.
Perhaps less obvious are the six Heckler-Koch toting chaps pulled up over the road in three blacked-out 4x4s. That's right, six – a small army. A shop door opens and a glamorous, immaculately dressed woman strides across the street trailed by her plain-clothes bodyguards and a personal assistant who's carrying her shopping. A car door springs open and Rambo jumps out to open the passenger door for our mystery shopper.
The two plain-clothes operatives jump in the other two vehicles and off they ride, armour plating weighing heavy upon bulletproof tires. I turn to my Lebanese dining companions with raised eyebrows. “A politician's wife”, they shrug, and return to their lunch. That's Beirut for you…