I first ate at Beirut in September last year, at a special meal for all five flatmates that we enjoyed so thoroughly we still talk about it. I had no idea Beirut did brunch, and so glad I found out they do. I went on a rainy Wednesday morning, taking an eager flatmate with me to the small barn-like (if a barn was all dark wood and glamour) bar section that is open for breakfast.
"This actually smells like Palestine," my Palestinian friend said as our za'atar with soft-boiled egg, parsley, lemon oil chickpea and flatbread ($10) was delivered to the table. It smelled like thyme and toasted sesame seeds. A soft-boiled egg split in half sat on a bed of something pureed (I forgot to ask what) and a smattering of crispy chickpeas, generously sprinkled with dark green za'atar spice mix.
Not surprisingly, a high percentage of the new eating places enlivening the Auckland eating scene is influenced by Asia and street food styles. And very welcome this is, too. But it is encouraging that the repertoire is being broadened with one of the newer additions, drawing its inspiration from another locale.
Beirut, the latest from the team that brought us Mexico and Orleans, among others, tips its hat in the direction of the Middle East although it makes no claims to replicate the cuisine of the Lebanon. Nor does it go down the rural/street food route. This is food of sophistication and subtlety of flavour. An old friend who was stationed in Beirut before the disastrous civil war used to rave about its cosmopolitan quality and this Auckland incarnation reflects why.
Head chef Jacopo Crosti is formerly of Cassia, another place that relies on influence rather than imitation, and he and executive chef Javier Carmona have spread their net. The first entries on the menu are four different styles of bread. Our choice of the manoush, crisp and thin like a quality pizza and topped with a spread of lamb, tomato, red pepper, olive powder, pickled chilli and lemon, heralded the vibrant flavours that were to follow.
Last week I ate at Bon Appetit magazine’s best new restaurant of 2015: Al’s Place in San Francisco. The food was exquisite, complicated, picturesque — a stonefruit curry, squashed raspberry and fig leaf oil, pork belly and galangal soda. Yet all anyone talks about is their fries.
Well, the fries are pretty good. The potatoes are pickled before frying, which gives them a background acidity. And they’re served not with ketchup, but with a smoked apple butter — what you get when you take hundreds of apples and cook them down until they form an intense brown paste.
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.