I can’t remember when my mother moved to Balluneh. I wasn’t happy because I loved our huge appartment in Beirut in a 1920′s building but it had been squatted during the civil war and even though my mother had gotten rid of the squatters (who were neighbours), she no longer felt safe there. So, she bought in Balluneh, away from the chaos of Beirut and close to her brother. I didn’t like the place at first but I do now, for all kinds of reasons including Qal’at el-Rumiyeh in neighbouring Qley’at where they rear their own lambs to serve the best nayeh ever — the only better nayeh is up north in places like Ehden where they make it with goat meat. They also have the most amazing view as you can see from the picture above. And whenever I visit, my mother knows that lunch at Rumiyeh is the first thing I want to do. It was no different this time except that we were joined by my sister and her husband, a rare couple who are still mad about each other nearly 40 years, 3 children and 2 grandchildren later!
Like in many Lebanese mountain restaurants, the first thing the waiter brings to the table at Rumiyeh, even before you order, are almonds that have been soaked overnight to reconstitute them and make them taste as if they were fresh and large heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with sumac and served with toum (an eggless garlic mayonnaise which they make particularly well at Rumiyeh although this time it was a little too stiff). The wasps started swarming as soon as the food was served. Fortunately, they have a very interesting remedy for them and that is an ashtray full of burning coffee grounds that they put on the table which keeps the wasps away. But they come back as soon as the fire is out!
Then our order of nayeh plus a few other mezze dishes was served: tableh, which is simply raw meat, minced very fine, simply seasoned with salt and served with toum, for me and kibbeh nayeh, made with very little burghul together with a side order of the filling used in kibbeh bil-saniyeh, for my mother. Both were very good as always. We would have also ordered raw liver (qasbeh nayeh) but the waiter didn’t recommend it — it wasn’t fresh enough.
I never drink arak in London but always do in Lebanon. It just suits the food, the climate and the mood; and I never tire of seeing it cloud as the waiter adds the water — it would be undrinkable without. I tried to capture the transformation in a photo but it didn’t work! Instead I snapped the waiter pouring the arak from the jug in which he had mixed it. We had ordered a quarter bottle (called rub’iyeh in Arabic) and the waiter prepared a whole jug to serve the arak from into the classic small glasses that are always used.
No mezze spread is ever complete without hommus. There are endless variations on how it is served: plain with a garnish of a few boiled chickpeas and a sprinkling of paprika, topped with sautéed diced meat and pine nuts which is how I always order it, with toasted walnuts and samneh (clarified butter) which is how it is served at the Silver Shore in Tripoli, another favorite of mine, and so on. And of course I had to have ‘assafir given it was the season. Theirs were good but headless, and nowhere near as good as Halim‘s. By the time the grilled meats started coming, the coffee grounds had burned down and the wasps were back. The only advantage was the way this one landed on the bread as I was clicking the shutter!
Lebanese restaurants outside Beirut have a wonderful tradition of serving dessert on a separate table so that you can enjoy your fruit and sweets on a completely clean table. It was the season for fresh dates and khaki and they were excellent but the qashtah (Arabic clotted cream made by skimming the skin off barely bubbling milk) was a little old and I am sure it was made with powdered milk. Disappointing. The honey was good though, even for the wasp who was drowning in it as we left!
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