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First Look: Beirut

Sep 18, 2015 Restaurants

Words and photography by Alice Harbourne. 

Never discuss politics, religion or money at the dinner table. I suppose that’s an axiom food writers are meant to abide by too; you’re here to read about yummy things, and fair enough too.

So that’s where I’ll start, with a plate of deconstructed baba ghanoush, renamed “Bubba”. At first glance, you could mistake four pieces of aubergine for smoked fish, its grey-brown flesh mimicking mackerel, but on first bite it’s clear what’s going on: silky aubergine, crispy dehydrated kale, little lardons of housemade black sujuk and crunchy sesame seeds. Piled on the same fork, the textures and flavours are a Middle Eastern symphony.

The Arabic translation of “baba ghanoush” is “pampered papa”, said to have originated as a name for a member of a royal harem. At Britomart Hopsitality’s new restaurant Beirut, that’s the vibe. A large dining room looking onto Fort Street is decorated with deep red and gold tones, muted linen, distressed brown leather and glossy blackened wood. Many of the dishes are served on matte bronze and gold plates, which at night double the efficacy of tabletop beeswax candles.

Beirut marks a new style of dining for the team behind it, whose previous ventures (18 all told) include Britomart Country Club, Orleans and Agents and the original Mexico, which Beirut’s executive chef Javier Carmona opened with Mimi Gilmour. If you stand on the pavement outside Beirut (you’ll be able to sit and dine there in summer) you can see it across the road. Take a few steps the other way and you’ll find yourself at Ima : one of Auckland’s best Middle Eastern restaurants.

It could be dangerous spitting distance, but Carmona is keen to distinguish Beirut as offering something altogether unique to Auckland’s dining scene. “We’re going for polished cuisine with the foundations of authentic and fringe Middle Eastern ingredients,” he says, “we’re not going for the homely, ‘your mother’s cooking’ style: Ima does that really well already”.

The dish I tried – the Bubba – certainly hinted at this, a Middle Eastern classic beautifully deconstructed with homemade sausage. They’ll be air-drying their own beef too, the basturma showcased on the menu with torched and pickled cauliflower, and baking their own Afghan and Persian flatbreads as well as various pastries, which will be available to eat for breakfast in the laneway courtyard.

As my visit coincided with the chaos or a restaurant before opening night, dessert was left to my imagination; the Pashmak – strings of saffron floss and clotted cream – is tasting excellently in my head.

Aside from the taboo politics of competing restaurants, it’s hard to think of Beirut right now without an altogether more serious political topic coming to mind. Lebanon is home to an estimated 1.15 million refugees, the largest in the world in per capita terms.

Seeing the gilded sign outside the restaurant door – Beirut written in gold – I couldn’t help imagine how literal that symbol is for many of the world’s tragic victims. We often say we’re lucky to live in this city, how profoundly true it is. I wish we could share it with the world.

85 Fort St
(09) 367 6882


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