It’s truly a family business,” says Mary Helene Gougeon, describing Villa Clara, a restaurant and boutique hotel in Mar Mkhayel she owns with her husband, Olivier Gougeon. With Olivier, a French chef, preparing the food for the venue, Mary Helene managing the hotel, and their two young children Clara and Patrick on the premises, her words ring true after even a short visit to Villa Clara.
Gougeon first came to Beirut in the year 2000 to complete his civil service requirements in Lebanon. He loved the country, staying on after his service ended and developing several cuisine projects, including Downtown’s Aziz and Edde Yards in Jbeil souks. Still, Gougeon wanted to have his own venue serving traditional bourgeois French cuisine, and so Villa Clara came to be.“We chose Mar Mkhayel area because it still has the old Beirut feel of a real sense of community that I love,” says Mary Helene.
The Parisian venue
Speaking of the 1920s-style, spacious two-floor house in which Villa Clara is now located, Mary Helene says, “When we saw this villa we immediately knew this is the place for our project and felt that it lent itself perfectly for a boutique hotel as well.”
Walking into the venue from a serene leafy sidestreet, one steps into a charming front garden café with a small children’s area and dark red classic French bistro style tables and chairs.
The interior hall, the main Villa Clara restaurant, seats 25 people on several large tables scattered around the room, creating a spacious feel.
According to Mary Helene, most of the furniture — including the Napoleon III chimney and the same Andrée Putman chairs that were in the Parisian St. James Hotel — was shipped straight from different venues in France. It is no wonder, then, that one feels transported into a typical Parisian eatery upon entering the room.
The architect responsible for putting it all together is Ramy Boutros. He was also behind the perhaps-out-of-place idea of metallic birds on the ceiling of the otherwise traditional looking abode. “He wanted our clients to feel that the interior is a continuity of the garden, hence the birds,” explains Mary Helene.
Can’t rush perfection
The project cost approximately $1.4 million to create, and the Gougeons dipped into their personal accounts and took a Kafalat loan to finance it. “Because of our focus on quality, we don’t expect a return on investment before three to five years,” explains Mary Helene. Although the venue easily fits more tables, she says they kept it small to keep up with all their customers and provide them with good quality food.
Their resolve for quality extends to using only grain-fed free-range meat and organic fresh products, which Olivier gets during his daily visits to the market. Because of this, the menu varies daily depending on what products are found in the market.
“We also have a partnership with the Maronite Order in the Chouf where we rented a vegetable garden and a cellar to cure our own ham,” says Mary Helene, explaining that her husband is so insistent on freshness he even refuses to slice the carpaccio beforehand for fear of it changing color.
While a focus on quality is certainly desirable, Executive’s party also waited an hour and twenty minutes for the main courses to arrive — a bit over the top and, depending on how famished one is, flirting with disaster if one is left too irritated to enjoy the meal. That said, the meal did approach divinity: the foie gras with cinnamon was a perfect blend of the savory and the sweet, the mushroom steak succulent and tender and the steak tartar dish was prepared live at our table, an act both entertaining and supportive of the Gougeons’ claims of freshness. Less impressive was the chicken — a touch on the dry and bland side — leaving one to think that it is preferable to order only traditional French staples, which are the restaurant’s specialty anyway.
For high-end French cuisine, Villa Clara is reasonably priced; an appetizer and a main dish with a glass of French wine will set one back roughly $60. For a more casual meal, one can try the café menu during the daytime.
Thus it seems a piece of France has landed in Lebanon at the Villa Clara. With their culinary expertise in a charming setting, they might just capture the ever-wandering Lebanese palette. That is, if they can get the food out in time.