Fine dining in Beirut is a statement. It is competitive; affluent diners are always ticking off their lists and regaling tales of their attendance at the newest or trendiest venues. It is also a sport – every new restaurant that opens must have a “one up” on the last, and if you spend anytime with the players you notice an inherent propensity to flambé their competitors’ reputations.
And though the restaurant industry will surely feel the dip in regional tourism, it is generally not a sector in which the Lebanese scrimp, regardless of the economic climate. There is, however, a contemporary challenge that may lead to either the Beirut dining scene’s enrichment or ruin.
“Lately there has been a surge in the restaurant business, which is making the industry very competitive and over-saturated,” said Hussein Hadid, a renowned chef specializing in catering upscale events.
The good here, according to the luminaries of Beirut’s kitchens, is that increased competition could bring up the standard. The bad news is that without diner scrutiny — or a proper health inspector for that matter — it could mean a watering down of Beirut’s culinary talent, where quality loses its crown.
To investigate, Executive spoke with four of Lebanon’s newer upper-crust institutions to find out what diners are paying for when they order a top-dollar meal, and what they deserve.
Surprisingly, no one waxed poetic about the atmosphere, the chef’s mastery or even the service. The answers were all about quality. And according to the chefs, this is the only thing that should matter when pricing a menu.
The meat of the matter
There is disagreement and disbelief when the topic of beef is discussed — meat quality is disputed and “liars” are called out, diplomatically of course. But the truth is that restaurants know what others are serving and what they go through to get it.
Gaucho, for example, the British import that settled down next to the Phoenicia last November, brings all of its hallmark grass-fed beef from a particular farm in the fertile Pampas region of Argentina. It is then wet-aged and cooked on a special grill until it is brought to a table with no steak knife (there is no need). Mark Pass, Gaucho’s general manager heralds this point and talks about the cattle as if they were his own.
“I’m very proud of it,” said Pass. “If you talk about pricing and product, our cattle is as close as you’re going to get to organic without it being certified. There’s no feedlot. They’re completely grass-fed and they have on average one square kilometer per cow.”
Beef is at the top of the price list for several other Beirut chefs as well.
Burgundy, well known to be Beirut’s most expensive restaurant, makes no great arguments to convince its customer that the prices are warranted (some of the organic ingredients on the menu are not marked as such). But according to sous-chef Youssef Akiki, it’s all there. The fish is from Scotland, some of it wild, the beef is Australian Wagyu, including the MB9+ “Blackmore” variety for a mere $120 per serving.
Even the lower ends of the Wagyu spectrum can cost around $80 per kilogram wholesale; this should be noted by patrons dinning elsewhere that if the price on the menu seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Battle of the greens
Even with all of the meaty competition, the vegetables of Beirut are also causing a stir. With the trend of ‘locavore’ — eating local produce — settling in for the summer, those who fill their plates with produce from abroad are falling out of favour. Mar Mikhael eatery Chez Sophie has been accused of importing much of its menu from France as opposed to using Lebanese produce. But Sophie Tabet, the chef and namesake of the place, says that this is not the case, especially in the summer.
“With the summer you can eat the products (from) here but in the winter we don’t have anything in Lebanon, nothing,” said Tabet. She also added that the complexity of her ever-changing menu makes using all local produce impossible.
Burgundy uses a mix of local and imported organic produce, but Akiki said that though the quality and source of produce is important to chef Brody White, “The guests care in the end about taste.”
Kelly Jackson, executive chef at Le Gray, is delighted with local agriculture at the current seasonal moment and says that it is the one element that will make or break a menu.
“For me the key is the produce,” he said. “You can be the best chef in the world but if you don’t have the produce you’re not going to make anything great.”
Chez Sophie’s Tabet is miffed when it comes to “fine dining” in Beirut.
“Most of the restaurants don’t have the quality to back up their prices. And people enjoy going to them. That’s what is weird. They enjoy it,” said Tabet.
Hadid, slightly more diplomatically, said, “We have loads of restaurants but few that we can be proud of. There is still lots of room for improvement. We need to raise the standards, and it can only be done if more of the young generation are exposed to the restaurant and hotel industry in the West, learning from the very best chefs in the world.”
Hadid, as well as Tabet, both emphasized the diner’s palate and eye for quality as the only thing that will weed out the eateries with undeserved prices.
So, the bottom line is that when prices reach up into the stratosphere, the quality of the components should be there even before the skill of the chef is considered. It is hard to be sure that this is the case, but without a restaurant association or dependable inspection into false claims, the consumer is the only referee in this game.