Flying Under the Foodie Radar: 3 Hidden Gems You Need to Try

These days, if you navigate the “foodie” social media accounts popular in your community, you'll be swamped with restaurants that are trending. And by trending, I mean eateries that have either newly opened and are hosting those foodies over free meals or sponsoring content on their pages to reap exposure. I’m not bashing or criticizing this practice, per se. Such is the pervasive marketing agenda du jour.

But what about an honest-to-goodness recommendation about a hidden gem independently stumbled upon? Who remembers the good old days of yore when bloggers (you know, that nearly obsolete breed of niched experts who write) followed their own hearts (and tummies) in search of the best, tastiest, most memorable item or experience?

I come from that old school of thought. The ideal I painted above is in fact the very cornerstone of Beirutista. My intention from day one – that’s 2012 to be exact – was to share with you outstanding food outlets that I either happened upon by chance or was led to through research of other reliable sources.

So here are three recent discoveries of classic Lebanese breakfast fare – manakish, knefeh, and croissants – that I promise will knock your socks off. I must warn you, however: their venues are nowhere near posh or polished, and the artisans producing these treats are the antithesis of savvy businesspeople. Their recipe for success is steeped in decades of history, humility, consistence, passion, quality ingredients, and the general love of good food. Best part? None of these joints has presence in the fantastical world of social media, so don’t bother searching for them on Instagram.

Mostafa Al Jardali Sweets (Saida)

I’ll be frank. Knefeh was never my preferred choice of Levantine dessert. But after trying the Sidonese version, I’ve adopted a whole new perspective. Find your way to Mostafa Al Jardali pastry shop, located just behind the block from Al Anwar Sweets and Falafel Akkawi. It’s hard to miss, because the shop strategically places its knefeh kiosk outside, just beyond its threshold. Picture molten cheese and semolina blended together coarsely and stuffed inside a round sesame-studded kaakeh, drizzled liberally with orange blossom syrup, and wrapped up like a sandwich. It’s neither cloyingly sweet nor excessive in size. And for around $2 a pop, you’ll finally realize that the best things in life are (almost) free. The only hitch: knefeh production ends at noon daily.

Feast your eyes on this knefeh roll-up

Les Chanterelles (Jal el Dib)

The best gift a foodie can receive is unearthing a gem in her own neighborhood. I passed by Les Chanterelles so many times, but I never thought to step in. From the outside, it possesses the aura of an antique shop, housing a number of crystal vases and bowls. You’d never guess inside is a wealth of pastries hand-crafted using only the finest German butter and premium ingredients sourced abroad. We first tried the Galette des Rois on Epiphany and were blown away by the rustic feel of its taste and composition: flaky, buttery, chock-full of aromatic frangipane, and baked to a golden crisp. Then we graduated to the croissants, and they were a revelation. If you must prioritize, go for the cheese or ham and cheese, but don’t overlook the zaatar, chocolate, and almond varieties. They go for $2 apiece. (Tel. 04-716749)

A box of delightful croissants

Ham & cheese croissant

Zaatar croissant

Sevan Bakery (Mazraat Yachouh)

I would never have known about Sevan if it weren’t for a faithful foodie follower and digital acquaintance named Naji. This “furn,” manned by Georges (Kevork in Armenian) and one lone assistant, boasts four items: manakish zaatar (1,500 LBP), manakish jebneh (4,000 LBP), ftayer bi sele2 (2,000 LBP), and lahm baajin (3,500 LBP). Though I’m confident everything is noteworthy, it’s the cheese pie you must first try. A thick concoction of white cheese, dried mint, and finely minced onions is spread deliberately on a flat, round dough and fired into the oven. What emerges will make you question the second-rate specimens you’ve been settling for heretofore. My, oh my, we’ve all been living in damnable ignorance. The bakery opens daily until 3 PM, except on Sundays when it closes at 2 PM. (Tel. 04-926205)

Spreading the cheese blend on the dough

Firing the mankouche into the oven

Mankouchet jebneh, or cheese pie


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