Back to Basic Beirut
Among his recommendations for preparing a career as a truly informed restaurant critic, legendary food writer Craig Claiborne listed -- right up there with actually working in top chefs' kitchens, or extensive reading about food -- gourmet world travels, learning by experiencing, and analyzing dishes at their source. When asked where we'd love to eat on any given night, however, few food professionals in the last quarter-century would have chosen downtown Beirut. Running the gauntlet of guardians of the velvet ropes at South Beach's restaurant/lounges is more than terrifying enough for foodies who haven't fit into those old size fives in years. Dodging bombs and sniper fire, always a consideration during Lebanon's civil war years from 1975-91, definitely seemed overly hard on one's digestion.
This is unfortunate, because back in the long-ago days when Beirut was known as "the Paris of the Middle East," the food in Lebanon was evidently among the most sophisticated cuisines of any Arab nation. I say "evidently" because I've never been to Lebanon; most of my experience with that type of food comes from Middle Eastern eateries in the U.S. or Europe.
And with few exceptions, experiencing a country's food in that country is very different from what one experiences in American restaurants serving that nation's cuisine, as anyone who actually visits, say, Italy or China can tell you. Additionally, and unfortunately, all the national cuisines of the Middle East tend to be grouped (outside those individual nations) into one homogenous lump. There are indeed more similarities between the cuisines of the Arabic-speaking countries than between Italian food and French. But despite similar names for generally similar dishes and ingredients, preparations and spicing do vary by nation, sometimes notably.
To judge by Oasis -- not the veteran generic-Middle Eastern health food eatery on 41st Street but the new Lebanese resto-lounge in South Pointe -- Lebanon's food, compared with most Middle Eastern food I've had, has a somewhat more subtle variety in its spicing and textures, plus noticeable European continental influence. And to do this judging, diners needn't even dodge live armament. But they do need to deal with velvet ropes at the door. Arrive after the Cinderella transformation hour of 10:00 p.m. (or hours earlier on a night when the lounge is hosting a special event, as my party did, accidentally, on our first visit), and one also has to deal with lighting so low it's hard to see what one's eating, club music so loud that it's hard to converse with one's dining companions, and belly dancers in one's face. The dancers, however, were quite good. And so, once we managed to finally capture one of the place's nice but clueless servers, was the food.
As opposed to Lebanese homestyle full meals, the classic café eating custom is to serve mezze, similar to Spanish tapas. Oasis's combination hot and cold mezze assortments, each a sampler of four dishes dazzling in their color and variety of garnishes, were especially elegant looking: dressed-to-impress snacks. Especially tasty on the cold sampler were roasted red peppers, a savory purée of red peppers, onions, lots of walnuts, and a touch of molasses. But tabbouleh was also above average, loaded with spices rather than overloaded with lemon. Baba ghannouj was smoky and delightfully lighter in texture than usual (though over-light on garlic for my taste, possibly in deference to the glam crowd that arrives late). And velvety hummus was one of the best versions in town of this chickpea/tahini spread.
On the Oasis hot sampler, the standout item was coconut shrimp, truly colossal-sized monsters in a crust of coconut and phyllo, fried perfectly tender. Slender cigar-shaped grape leaves with meat were just okay, light on ground beef and very heavy on rice. Falafel, fried balls of ground chickpeas spiced with parsley, onion, and allspice, was good but would have been more graceful finger food had there been twice as many balls half the size. And a fried version of Lebanon's national dish kibbeh (spelled "kibbie" on the menu), a pulverized mix of beef -- usually lamb -- and bulgur with onion and spices, was pleasantly unusual, despite an overly heavy batter coating, due to the addition of pine nuts and a smooth dip that tasted like tarator sauce (sounds like tartare sauce, but unlike the mayonnaise emulsion, tastes like a blend of yogurt and tahini).
Those who like to live dangerously must try Oasis's tasty raw version of kibbeh, on the cold mezze menu. It's hard to find in most eateries because of mad cow-type fears, but heck, SoBe's been mad for years. Enjoy.
À la carte hot mezze not to be missed are mahanek, a lip-tingling, housemade spicy sausage of beef, wine, and pine nuts, and sambosic -- crisp, tiny triangular pies of meat-stuffed fried phyllo. The latter comes with a lovely tangy tahini-pomegranate dipping sauce.
Among entrées, mashawis, skewers of tender grilled lamb, beef, chicken, or shrimp, were also meant for convivial communal consumption. But for those not in the Middle Eastern mood -- or the mood for sharing -- there were filet mignon or strip steaks with wine sauce, seafood linguine with chardonnay sauce, Chilean sea bass with beurre rouge, or local grouper with Carlyle sauce (butter, white wine, and fresh tomato).
Few Lebanese meals are unaccompanied by pickles, and a side order of makabis (very gently vinegared turnips, olives, and pickles) was a refreshing, crunchy contrast to all the softer and starchier dishes.
Most interesting libations to wash down the festive array are eight specialty cocktails, several featuring Middle Eastern flavors. Since the Morocatini's combination of allspice, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and vanilla seemed entirely too exciting for me, I tried an Arak-a-Tini, a mix of Stoli vodka and arak, the national drink of Lebanon. It turned out to be a dead ringer for Turkey's apocalyptic alcoholic drink, raki, which a frequent Turkish tourist friend once explained to me, fortunately before I tried it, as follows: "Istanbul has a big air pollution problem. Raki helps you breathe." To be specific, the Arak-a-Tini tasted like vodka mixed with licorice-flavored liquid propane gas. And, as my friend pointed out, "licorice propane is an acquired taste."
Finish up instead with a Turkish martini, a mix of Ketel One vodka and chilled Turkish coffee, which is like a super-powered version of Cuban coffee. Then run around the block a few times while waiting for Oasis to transform to lounge mode at 10:00, and dance all night.
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