Lebanese Food Outside Lebanon: Depressing
Dining out at a Lebanese restaurant outside the motherland has become somewhat of a stigmatic experience. In fact, if I’m looking for a surefire way of being disappointed, my best bet is to consult Yelp for local Mediterranean cuisine and follow through with a reservation at any of the rated eateries.
Try to think back to the last time you enjoyed Lebanese food to a superlative standard outside of Lebanon or the Arab countries. Can you conjure up even one such scenario?
I lived in Boston for two years and discovered nothing even mildly close to the rich, earthy taste of hummus or the fresh, crisp blend of parsley and bulgur in tabbouleh that we Lebanese have come to know and adore in our fertile Mediterranean paradise. From fast food joints like Aceituna near Kendall Square to more family-style diners like Café Barada in Davis Square, my appetite was never piqued. An expedition out to Norwood, the so-called Lebanese hotbed of greater Boston, for a proper taste of mezza left me hungry and disgruntled.
Paris was very much the same, although Lebanese restaurants were more abundant. Taouk sandwiches there implicated boiled chicken (yuck!), and tabbouleh translated to inverted proportions of parsley and bulgur. Familiar with the chain Noura? It’s as blasphemous to Lebanese cuisine as stuffing a falafel ball inside a kafta sandwich, as I once encountered at a food truck parked curbside by MIT.
A few weeks ago, we were invited to a wedding dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in Southern California. It’d been over three weeks since I departed from Beirut, so a classical mezza spread was high on my culinary wish list. I nurtured a ravenous appetite all day and with it, inevitably, great expectations for a great meal.
Arriving 15 minutes after the appointed hour per Levantine social dictates, we were disheartened to find the round tables devoid of even the smallest amuse-bouche: not a seasoned nut in sight, nor a spear of carrot soaked in lemon juice, nor even pumpkin seeds or roasted chickpeas to tempt the palate! As guests started to shuffle in and minutes transformed to quarter-hours and half-hours, our faces grew wan with hunger and confusion.
Eventually a waiter came round with pitchers of tap water and soda. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a soft drink pitcher outside of Chuck E. Cheese or Round Table Pizza. When did Lebanese restaurants want in on the uncouth game?
An hour and a half later, the bride and groom finally made their festive entrance, and with them ushered forth a staggered parade of nibbles. But they didn’t descend on the table all at once, as is customary in Lebanese culinary lore. Nope. It was as if the restaurant didn’t want to waste a morsel of food and only replenished it upon successful completion of the preceding dish.
As such, we were served the foregoing quartet: excessively tahini-tinged hummus; tajine-like baba ghannouj; a bowl of garlic paste (for what, I still fail to comprehend); and tabbouleh so saturated with tomato juice, it had probably been tossed 12 hours before. Seated five at the table, we had no choice but to transfer tiny spoonfuls of the meager sustenance before us into our immaculate white plates.
|You can judge a Lebanese restaurant by its hummus|
Could this be it, I mused pensively? Would they bring out the mains following this shameful excuse of a mezza? After we’d wiped clean every last lick of hummus and baba ghannouj (none of us ventured near the toum), a platter of kibbeh teardrops descended on the table. I almost cried out in relief as the half-dozen fried bundles made the rounds among us.
Mere minutes later, as I contemplated what dish might emerge next, a waiter passed by and snatched up the last remaining kibbeh ball before we could even fight over it. My jaw dropped in complete astonishment, and as I considered beckoning him over to emancipate the stolen kibbeh, I saw him consolidating all its leftover kindred from every one of the tables into a pooled dish which he walked over to the last table, yet unserved.
Stunned to silence, I had no remaining appetite to eye even curiously the filo-dough cheese-and-spinach rolls (more like spanakopita than rkeket if you ask me). What should have been sambousik brimming with minced meat came shaped like a triangle in baklava pastry paper, and the rolled grape leaves resembled a species of stuffed Swiss chard with rice and chickpeas.
In one last swift blow, the grills counted among them cubes of chewy meat, kafta kebabs charred black beyond recognition, and chunks of chicken more evocative of tandoori than taouk. Yellow Persian rice was the cherry on top.
|Grilled meat skewers|
By this point, I’d thrown in the towel in utter defeat. Diners on neighboring tables seemed content with the abominable state of food presented to them, so who was I to spoil the celebrations? They even washed down the dessert option of desiccated vermicelli domes housing clotted cream without a drip of syrup, using instead pitcher soda water for esophageal lubrication.
|Vermicelli domes stuffed with clotted cream|
As we set out for home, I couldn’t help but think how Lebanese restaurants abroad will never hold a candle to their original counterparts back home. And what a pity that is, because our Mediterranean cuisine is undoubtedly one of our crowning cultural achievements.