Toasted: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread
Let’s be honest here: it’s hard to get excited about two slices of toasted square bread, notwithstanding what goes between them. Am I right? Hardly my idea of a riveting culinary affair, especially when I’ve been making the trite peanut butter and jelly variety since elementary school.
Leave it to the epicurean genius of Jad el Hage to set me straight and send the ball hurling out of left field. Managing partner and executive chef at his company Foodlab, Jad is the face behind the concepts of l’Humeur du Chef (Mar Mikhael), La Cabane du Chef (Zaarour), and La Paillotte du Chef (summer popup in Halat). Rewind the chronology, and you’d find him helping to launch Tawlet alongside critically acclaimed food activist Kamal Mouzawak; manning the kitchens at the now-shuttered Talleyrand, once a bastion of enviable haut gastronomy; and flexing his muscles at the Byblos beach resort EddeSands.
Jad is a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in hospitality administration and management before washing back ashore in his motherland to make waves. And waves he’s made, most recently with the opening of his sandwich shop in Mar Mikhael, Toasted.
I pushed past the massive glass door to the modest café on a Wednesday evening, just as the whir of pedestrians in Mar Mikhael was making light on the streets in pursuit of happy hour. The cozy white space accommodates a dozen or so diners, who can relish in an open view of the kitchen thanks to the sizable square window cutout in the wall.
Jad greeted me warmly, hastening to offer a chilled bottle of San Benedetto sparkling water alongside a glass cup brimming with ice cubes. Clearly, he is a student of propriety, in spite of the casual feel of this eatery. I’d carefully reviewed the menu at home – a selection of a dozen sandwiches, three salads, and three desserts – and expressed hesitation between “The pulled beef” and “The New Yorker.” Jad quickly convinced me the former would better initiate me to Toasted, what with the seven-hour slow-cooking of rib-eye aromatic with brisket spices. Ay, there’s the rub, indeed.
|Here's what a sandwich platter looks like at Toasted ("The pulled beef")|
Picture this: toasted square bread emanating from a dough infused with Herbes de Provence, namely basil, fennel, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, and thyme. Those square slices are cushioned by molten Swiss and Bleu cheeses, which in turn hug an inch-thick layer of delicate, melt-in-your-mouth pulled beef slathered with homemade onion jam. Euphoria for the senses, this creation beautifully captures the magic Jad breathes in to something as basic as a sandwich.
|Up close and personal with "The pulled beef"|
The man’s done his homework: he sought out the founder of Le Grenier à Pain, a typical French boulangerie that once festooned the Gemmayze district with its delectable baked goods. Together, they hashed up the various types of “pain de mie” that flesh out Toasted’s menu: white, multi-cereal, squid-ink, paprika, Herbes de Provence, thyme and sumac, and two others on the way to appease gluten-intolerant diners. Quinoa toast, anyone?
Sandwiches are served with homemade chips and a mesclun salad tossed in olive oil and lemon. But if you’re ordering delivery, those two sides are nixed in favor of slashed prices. That pulled beef wonder? Only 12,000 LL ($8) delivered to the comfort of your abode. In fact, the priciest item on the menu is a mere 16,000 LL ($10.67), affixed to “The Asian,” whose contents include marinated shrimp, avocado, and – you guessed it – black squid-ink-tinted bread.
I had a bite out of my toddler’s “The cheesy,” adapted to incorporate multi-cereal bread sans buttering – that’s Jad embodying his equally tantamount role as nourishing parent. A blend of mozzarella, Swiss, and cheddar cheeses provides adhesion between the two slices of bread, which want only a bowl of zesty tomato soup to round out the perfect winter meal.
|"The Cheesy" features a blend of mozzarella, Swiss and cheddar|
Before leaving, I was adamant about trying one of the dessert numbers. At Jad’s suggestion, I indulged in the pain perdu, a far cry from the excessively sugary French toast we see repeated tirelessly everywhere else in Beirut. One thick slice of bread is buttered and toasted on a griddle, animated with just a fleck of sugar, sea salt, and a scoop of Oslo “caramel fleur de sel” ice cream. It’s all about more with less, in accordance with the French philosophy of cuisine.
|Pain perdu, or French toast topped with caramel ice cream|
Jad and I bonded over our equal disdain for unrealistically pricey fare in restaurants across Lebanon. That was actually one of the driving forces behind Toasted, to keep things as affordable as possible in a nod to the cash-strapped citizen trying to make ends meet in our austere economy. He refuses to budge on the premium quality of ingredients, instead adhering to the no-greed approach to pricing he was taught in Lausanne: the cost of ingredients should figure as 1/3 of the price of the dish.
I didn’t think a midweek dinner at a sandwich shop would stretch to encompass an hour and a half. But that just goes to show how formidable Jad’s creations are, in spite of their subtlety. You’d be amiss to overlook Toasted as you’re strolling through Armenia Street. Better yet, add their number to your speed-dial. Because this is one delivery option that’s gonna sock your hole-ridden knocks off.
|One last photo capture of that marvelous pulled beef sammie|
Azirian Street, Mar Mikhael, Beirut
01 - 44 25 25