Most people donโ€™t like dining in an empty restaurant. I love it. I love the desolate atmosphere of an empty dining room and I love the undivided attention I get from both waiters and chefs, at least in places like Qalโ€™at al-Rumiyeh, my favourite restaurant in the Lebanese mountains, near where my mother lives. Fortunately, the restaurant is not always empty. Only when I tend to go for midweek lunch when there isn’t a single soul there apart from the family that owns the restaurant, seated at their regular table by the door and my mother and I (I always insist we go there as soon as I arrive in Lebanon), not counting the waiters milling about with nothing to do. I don’t particularly like the place which is huge and pretty charmless, but I love the dramatic views over a deep valley and the Mediterranean in the distance and of course the excellent food.

qley'at 1 copy

qley'at-view 2 copy

I always order far too much, to my mother’s consternation — she is very anti wasting food and has only recently accepted my suggestion that she should take whatever is leftover back home with her; it is not considered chic to do this in Lebanon. Still, she likes the food there as much as I do and after her initial protestations, is pleased when our dishes start arriving. But even before I order, we are served a bowl of almonds on ice (the almonds are soaked until they are completely rehydrated and taste like fresh ones), half a large tomato each, sprinkled with sumac and a small bowl of the most ethereal garlic dip to eat with the tomato. A perfect start to a perfect meal.


Then the waiters start bringing our order which is mainly raw meat dishes — they rear their own sheep and butcher them in-house; as a result, the meat is always supremely fresh regardless of whether the restaurant is full or not. My favourite is a very smooth tartare of lamb that is hardly seasoned and comes garnished with a mound of fresh mint, which I eat with the same garlic dip as that served with the fresh tomato.

qley'at-tableh copy

I also love their kibbeh nayeh which I order with a side plate of the stuffing used to fill the kibbeh balls or kibbeh bil-saniyeh (the one shaped as a pie). I pile the cooked stuffing on the raw meat to eat them together. A wonderful combination of hot and cold, and soft, chewy and crunchy.

qley'at-kibbeh nayeh with stuffing copy

I also order regular mezze staples such as goat labneh (strained yoghurt) which is more like a fresh goat cheese than labneh, baba ghannuge (theirs is particularly smoky and delicious) and fresh thyme salad. And I love their French fries which are hand-cut and fried to order in fresh oil (unlike the fries at brgr, a newish hamburger joint in Beirut where the fries were appaling).

french fries & labneh

And of course, you cannot have a Lebanese meal without bread but what is nice there is that they are happy to toast the bread specially for you, as against serving days old toasted bread like in some restaurants. Also, even though there is good pita bread in London, it is never as thin as that baked in Lebanon or Syria which is miraculously thin.

qley'at-toasted pita copy

And despite the restaurant being completely empty, the waiter immediately lit the fireplace for us using pieces of broken furniture to make the most wonderful fire which kept our corner nice and warm.

qley'at-fireplace copy

It was unusually cold last week and I wouldn’t have been there normally if it wasn’t for being invited as a guest judge on the Arab version of top chef. I will post a link when LBC airs the episode!

There is 4 comments on this post

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i have to say, olivier and my mom are both against eating in empty restaurants. but on a few occasions where they have convinced me to eat at the place that was full instead – we were disappointed, and i now no longer give in. once, olivier and i even had 2 lunches in a row – the first place that was full was just not good. so we simply went to the empty place right after (where i had originally wanted to go) !

    this meal sounds phenomenal above, i can’t say i have much experience with raw meat. but when it comes to lebanese food, i always want to try everything – because i usually end up loving it all. great post, anissa ! can’t wait to see and hear about you on top chef !!

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    thx so much kerrin. will post a link to the top chef episode when it’s on. and i have no qualms at all about empty restaurants. it is not obligatory that they are empty because they are bad. you are right not to give in ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    have always found the overuse of french fries into our exquiste repertoire of dishes to be stodgy and uninspired..( even using them to sccop our spreads and stuffing them in shawarmas )now I even hear the hot dog is huge in the Beirut street food scene..shame !!Bourdain even ate one when he went back there..it was shameful..

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i agree unless they are done properly like at qal’at el rumiyeh or by certain home cooks like my mom ๐Ÿ™‚

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