Lebanese fare provides pleasant surprise

(shanghai daily)
Updated: 2006-12-29 09:21

As with many restaurants that have opened in Shanghai recently, too much is made of their multi-million yuan decors instead of the quality of food at hand. More often than not, it is usually a case of style over substance.

What many people tend to forget is that they are paying handsomely to eat in these swank beaneries. While the food at restaurants in a place like the tacky Zhapu Road is not as good as those found on the nearby Bund, the visual offensive of the former's neon light assault makes it equally memorable to the latter and at a fraction of the price.

Taj Beirut will likely never be featured in an interior decoration magazine. With its over-the-top, comfortable lime green vinyl booths, ubiquitous minaret outlines and strip mall location just off the People's Square, it would be an easy place to miss. But for the uninitiated, it is worth seeking out as the food here is first-class and provides an inexpensive introduction to the tastes of the Middle East.

Rising from the ashes of Zahara in Gubei, a venue that was forced into extinction by exorbitant rent and a distant location, Taj Beirut is a no-frills, 55-seat diner specializing in food from Lebanon and Syria.

The restaurant is truly an international experience as owner Tannir Mouhydine comes from Lebanon, manager Mounir-Belhaj hails from Morocco and chef Thaer Rashwani is from Syria. Two Filipinos and a couple of Chinese round out the staff in this immaculately-clean establishment that opened in November.

The real star here is chef Rashwani as the Syrian boasts 24 years of experience, largely in five-star hotels. During his career he has worked for 10 years at the Sheraton Hotel in his native Damascus and five years in Saudi Arabia, in addition to stints in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and here in Shanghai.

He explained that Lebanese and Syrian food is the same. The diet is heavy on grilled or barbecued lamb, chicken and beef, and accentuated with chili sauce, coriander, mint, cumin, black-and-white pepper and Arabic spices. The mutton, in particular, is similar to Xinjiang style, but less fatty and not as spicy.

With nothing on the extensive menu topping 40 yuan (US$5), Taj Beirut is a great place to go with friends and sample all of its wonderful mazza (appetizers) in falafel (chickpeas mixed with cumin and garlic - 20 yuan) and kibbe mi'leeye (crispy pastry shells filled with lamb and onion - 20 yuan).

The various dips in hummos (chick pea), baba ghannooj (chunky eggplant) and mohammarah (walnut with pepper), all for 20 yuan each, provided an excellent accompaniment to the pita bread which is cooked fresh on the premise.

Baked items are prominent on the menu with a selection of fatayr, or Arabic pizza, which can be ordered for 22 yuan. They come with such fillings as spinach and onion, cheese, ground lamb and sesame, pistachio and almonds.

The kibbe bi seineeye (40 yuan) looked similar to a Scotch egg but was filled with mince beef and onions providing a dry taste that was akin to haggis.

The fettoosh (salad with mint, parsley and bits of toasted pita in a lemon vinaigrette - 20 yuan) was another winner. The fresh, tasty salad would be ideal by itself for lunch or as a light meal. From the grill, the standard shish kebab (38 yuan) and shawwarma (35 yuan) were mainstays, but it was the other items in the grilled marinated lamb chops (40 yuan), kufta ezmeer (spicy lamb meatballs with roasted potatoes - 40 yuan) and shish taook (chicken breast skewers marinated in a coriander-yogurt sauce - 38 yuan) that made the menu adventurous.

No trip to an Arabic restaurant would be complete without a glass of mint tea and the sweet drink provided a good accompaniment to try such treats as awaam (sweet yogurt donuts - 13 yuan), hareesa (semolina dough filled with pistachios and drizzled with syrup - 13 yuan) and the ruz bil haleeb (a simple milk pudding with rice - 13 yuan).

Manager Mounir-Belhaj admits that the restaurant was opened to offer inexpensive Lebanese food. As one of two establishments offering such food in Shanghai, Taj Beirut is an affordable alternative to Hengshan Road's 1,001 Nights - a place that can often turn into an expensive night with belly dancing floor show and hookahs.

"The location here is good (off Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall). There is a lot of hotels around here with many Arabic and European guests, they like Arabic food," said the Casablanca native.

Taj Beirut is open from 11am to 11pm daily and offers delivery service through Sherpa's. In keeping with Muslim tradition, no alcohol is served on the premise.

Address: 649 Hankou Rd
Tel: 021-6352-2590


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