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Showing posts from July, 2012

Why I Do What I Do

I'm often asked how a mechanical engineer like myself, branded with an MS from MIT, got into banking. How I despise that question! Almost as much as I despise someone asking me why I chose to come to Lebanon. Because the answer is not so plain. And the journey nowhere near consummate.

Here's the start.

I was awarded a merit fellowship both by MIT and the United States National Science Foundation to pursue a complete graduate program, and believe me, the PhD had long been my goal. I was passionate about tutoring and teaching, and I'd determined the only way to teach at a university was to obtain my doctorate. At MIT, however, I had a change of heart--I loved the course work and the interaction with my peers, but I rarely looked forward to time in the lab. In fact, the most memorable thing about my master's was crafting the thesis itself. I finished it well before graduation--such was my excitement--and my advisor insisted it read more like a narrative than it did a tec…

Nothing Ever Lasts

In Lebanon, the only thing permanent in price is a box of Chiclets. Everything else is regularly subject to a price hike, and that is especially evident at restaurants. I understand that inflation is to blame, and the cost of living in Lebanon does go up every week. But I can't help cringing at the tactics restaurants use to introduce their elevated prices.

Take Roadster diner, for example, a Lebanese chain adored by all as if it were a national landmark. At the start of the year, Roadster overhauled its menu--well, it introduced some new items and parted with others--publishing a new menu but retaining the same price scheme. Roadster slyly allowed for an adjustment period during which customers learned to embrace the new food offerings, and once they had, WHAM! It reprinted the same new menu, this time with subtle markups here and there. An avid Roadster fan wouldn't even notice--why bother perusing the menu when you've memorized it--until his bill arrived. And even the…

Why We Come Back to Lebanon

Last week, I gave a welcome speech at my company's new employee orientation. One girl about my age introduced herself as Lebanese-German, having recently transplanted to Lebanon from Frankfurt. A week later, we ran into each other in the hallway, and I pressed her for her motives in moving here. After some pause for reflection, she replied, timidly, "I don't really know." Her guardedness was evident, and after a bit more probing, I came to understand that her banking career abroad had been cut short by the European debt crisis. Family pressure to live in the country of her heritage also had something to do with her being back.

After work that evening, as I was strolling in Beirut Souks, I spotted our new Head of Learning having a beer at the local Irish pub. He motioned for me to come inside, and we got to talking about his move from Toronto to Beirut just six months ago. He'd left Beirut for London as a teenager, attended university in South Carolina, worked thro…

The Dangers of Delivery

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Lebanon is plagued by scooters, and who's driving those scooters? Delivery boys. Everything, and I mean everything, in Lebanon is deliverable. In the US, where delivery is generally reserved strictly for pizza, in Lebanon, anything from shawerma sandwiches at Barbar to a gourmet meal by La Cigale to a water pipe by your local shisha house is delivery-worthy. Craving Chinese food? Chopsticks will deliver. How about a man'ouche pie? The local bakery is at your beck and call. Nah, I'll just zip to the patisserie for a croissant. Don't trouble--Pain d'Or's already dispatched a delivery boy. Even something as trivial as a candy bar or bag of chips from your neighborhood convenience store can be delivered.

If a food outlet doesn't offer delivery, it doesn't stand a fighting chance of surviving among its competitors. Lebanese may as well be synonymous with lazy, because they believe it is their God-given right to be served in-house, literally. And that's …

My Theory About Car Horns

Horns should be banned in Lebanon. Not only do they significantly contribute to the noise pollution that is second only to smog, they are enemies of safety. Ever heard the expression "it takes two to tango"? The same applies to vehicles collisions. As long as one of the two drivers is cautious and steers clear of the offender's moves, the crash is avoided.

In Lebanon, unlike most parts of the world where the horn is a gentle nudge if you're still idling at a green light, drivers use their horns to aggressively warn others to back off or to make room for their impending offense. A horn is like a wild card that excuses you from what you're about to do. You honk, we have to pause and let you get away scot-free with your traffic violation. We exercise caution so that you can commit your crime.

But what if you were stripped of that horn? What if you couldn't make neighboring cars aware of your brash intentions? What if you had to stop and make eye contact with t…

The Hunt for Starbucks' Ex-Muffin

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I confess: I am a self-professed foodie. Case in point: About two months ago, Jimmy and I stopped by Starbucks downtown on a Sunday afternoon to indulge in our traditional double chocolate muffin and American coffee ritual. As we approached the pastry display, we noticed the muffins were not their usual selves: they’d shrunk, flattened on top, and were plastered with one too many chocolate chips. Our eyes quickly scanned the entire selection of sweets, and sure enough, they’d been replaced with new items. The supplier had been changed! And the prices had increased by at least a third! We stood gaping for a few minutes before we decided maybe we should give the new muffins a go for comparative purposes, despite our immediate angst. They were true to form: terrible. Too sugary, dense, void of a uniform dispersion of chocolate chips, and nowhere near as good as their predecessors. It was the end of an era for us, and we were abject. I resolved to look into the matter further, though, as …

Broumanna on the Rebound

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Broumanna used to be a summer escape buzzing with Lebanese and tourists alike. Home to Mounir and Bourj al Hamam, both of which are renowned in the Arab world for their food and hospitality, Broumanna is decked with open-terrace restaurants offering guests a lovely dining experience under the stars. But the charm of this city, tucked in the mountains above Beirut, seems to have lost its luster over the years, and that is seen in the sheer volumes of outlets that have opened their doors only to close them in just a matter of months.

Broumanna's restaurant row, where Crepaway has long stood, is electric once more with a new resto-pub called Brew-moon, Copas Mexican cantine, the age-old Manhattan, and since last summer, Chase Terrace. We are huge fans of Chase's outlet in Kaslik, thanks to its lovely salad bar and plats du jour. But this Chase features only an a la carte menu, so it was with hesitation that we stepped inside, Friday evening, and requested a table on the terrace,…

Crave

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Restaurants in Lebanon are notoriously short on creativity. Wherever you go, you run into places featuring "international cuisine" (what exactly does that mean?!) serving everything from pizzas, burgers, fajitas, pasta, steaks, and Arabic mezze, to the classic chocolate fondant. I can't tell you how many restaurants fit exactly that profile, and how nervous I get about the operation behind those kitchen doors. The poor chef!

Crave (right off of Monot), while boasting a lengthy menu, has something unique and unifying that other restaurants simply fail to capture--balance. A master in fusion food, Crave serves up food that portrays the perfect harmony between savory and slightly sweet, freshness and quality, presentation and appeal. The first time we tried Crave, we sampled their elegant dessert selection: fruit-filled crepes smothered in Grand Marnier creme anglaise, and a Asmalieh creme brulee, a tantalizing combination of a traditional Arabic pastry with a classic Fren…

End of a (Jdeideh) Era

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Today is my last day at Bank of Beirut's head offices in Jdeideh. For a year and two long months, I occupied a corner cubicle on the fifth floor with a splendid view of, you guessed it, cubicle walls. Occupying my own office, though, instilled in me a feeling of self-importance, as most of my other office mates, young and old, sat in open space by unit or section. I, however, the only staff dedicated exclusively to the Bank's strategy management, had my own "thinking space". It is here that I pored over banking management text books, learning the basics of flow in a bank and about each indispensable element from compliance to risk to marketing. It is here I spent many a long hour mulling our Australian subsidiary's performance, brainstorming new campaigns to appeal to a broader customer base. It is here that I benchmarked our products and services with our competitors' in an effort to gain an edge.

Jdeideh had its charm at lunchtime: each street is brimming …

Real Lebanese Cuisine?

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Over the last two weeks, I've been exposed to a wide variety of, let's say, Lebanese "delicacies". My best friend's relatives came for a brief visit from Calgary, and for a few of them, it'd been ages since they'd been back to the motherland. So naturally, their family here, in proper Lebanese fashion, strived to serve up dishes that are deeply Lebanese and can't be had (genuinely, at least) anywhere but here.

I'm talking about your well-known raw chicken liver, raw cubes of meat interspersed with white cubes of pure fat ("liyyeh"), and raw kibbeh (burghul and ground red meat), as well as your definitely not daily variety stuffed intestines, escargots, sauteed frog legs, cow brains and cow tongue. I also came within a few inches of fried sardines and another small fried fish whose name I can't recall.


Now I was born and raised in sunny Southern California, but our upbringing was ascetically Lebanese. By that, I mean every summer va…

Mr. Blues

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Last night, I had the privilege of seeing B.B. King perform live in Byblos for the International Music Festival 2012. I left my house in Mansourieh at 7 and inched my way to Byblos at snail's pace, thanks to the miserable summer traffic. We got to the Mina, where the risers have been set up for the monthlong music festivities, at around 9, just in time for the King of Blues' dazzling opening. The atmosphere was abuzz with excitement and anticipation as the 86-year-old blues legend strummed on his guitar Lucille, first purely instrumental, then nearly a half hour later, adding in vocals. People kept pouring in even after 10pm, knowing full well that any minute in Blues Boy's presence was more than worth it.

Byblos itself was not swollen with crowds, as it had been last week for Slash's concert, when I could barely get through the throngs of people in the Old Souk to get to the Mina. The ambiance was calmer, perfectly mirroring the style of music the city swayed to.

I g…

Casserole's Plat du Jour

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A few months ago, Casserole Caterers advertised a deal with GoSawa, featuring their plat du jour with a salad and dessert at half off (that's $6 rather than $12). Casserole is located in Jal el Dib, and they promised delivery to Jdeideh, where I work, so I happily nabbed the offer.

I ordered the steak with mushroom sauce, which, along with ten or so other dishes, is featured daily at Casserole in addition to the main plats du jour. I knew my meal was going to be good from the delivery box: it resembled a sturdy Fedex shipping package, and inside there were four compartments where each meal item--main dish, salad, dressing, and dessert--was nestled safely. It didn't even seem as if this meal had made a journey across town to reach me.



As I flipped open the box, I was immediately impressed with the portion sizes of the platter and dessert. I absolutely hate being surprised with smaller-than-life servings--an inevitable risk you stomach when you're trying a new venue--but Ca…

Premiere Cinema Experience in Lebanon

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It seems that the new obsession in Lebanon is premier movie theaters. Last month, ABC Dbayeh launched its Grand Cinemas, boasting "champagne, caviar, and popcorn" in a billboard ad. Yesterday City Mall's CinemaCity opened its Premiere Theater, advertised as the largest screen in Lebanon, with 44 speakers inside the auditorium and seating for 400, a lucky 60 of whom will be able to enjoy the Club Class. Yet to see what the price will be like for this luxury, and how many more cinemas will imitate the trend.

Smoking is Out

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I usually trek over to City Mall Dora on my lunch hour for an escape from the office. City Mall has long been very popular with both the Lebanese and foreign crowds, owing to its convenient location, giant TSC supermarket, and a plethora of restaurant and cafe venues. I noticed a new anti-smoking campaign in the form of small icons depicting, rather than a cigarette, a fork or lipstick wand nestled between two fingers. I thought to myself that this was one good step in the direction of phasing out public smoking, but then I saw larger banners prohibiting smoking inside City Mall and penalizing wrongdoers at least LL135,000 ($90 USD) for any infraction.




Astonished, I walked up to a waiter inside Colombiano coffeehouse and asked if it were true. By the looks of it, yes, he nodded, but customers sitting at Colombiano were welcome to light up. I chuckled to myself. It's profits before principles in this country.

Sure enough, when I plopped down on a sofa inside Starbucks, I was gre…