Tawlet Souk-el-Tayeb

“Lebanon’s larder is extremely rich. Almost anything… can be imported, and even pork is sold, a rarity in an Arab country. In the countryside, farmers set up impromptu stands along the roads with gorgeous fresh favas, green beans, strawberries and artichokes” (Fabricant, June 2010, for the New York Times: CLICK HERE for the full article and slide show)

I kept hearing about this place I had to go. “You’ll love it!” “The food is amazing!” “One of a kind!”  I’m not a food snob per say but I am picky about how I spend my money; if a restaurant’s fare seems like something I can replicate in my own kitchen, I’m less inclined to shell out for a meal of mediocre pizzazz and quality.  Reviews of the nature that I kept hearing about Tawlet (“kitchen table” in Arabic) though sparked a curiosity, finally acted on back in February on one of those sunny, crisp Beirut days that begs for an abandonment of chores, obligations, and enclosed spaces for a sunlit meander.

A route through a fair portion of the city proper, found Megan and I arriving to Tawlet, an airy, spacious hideaway in the periphery neighborhood of Mar Mikel just after their fixed-price lunch buffet had been set out.  The work of local artists, on this particular day showcasing a theme of whimsy and the abstract (“Little Red Riding Hood” was depicted with colored dots spanning a time line, from a birds eye view- I felt like I was examining something at Fresh Pot on Hawthorne), layered the cleanly hued walls, potted plants contrasted with brushed metal trivets, space between tables invited conversation and movement.  I am yet to come across a space of such invitation, comfort, and warmth in Beirut; while not a criticism, the typical flavor of eateries is pre-fabricated and dim or cramped and smokey.  The Portlander in me was skipping with glee to have stepped through some kind of portal to another spacial experience, one mirroring the likes of the Axe, Pambiche, Papa Soul’s, and City State.

To say that the food was “good” would perhaps be an understatement…  The defining feature of Tawlet is an ever changing menu, crafted by chefs and cooks from around the country, each offering a showcase of regional specialties.  On this particular day, fresh lemonade and an array of salads began the indulgence.  Perfectly tender fava beans, vegetarian kibbe, dolmas, a fish and tahini soup that I went back for multiple servings of, and several other dishes followed.  Dessert ranged from fresh fruit to pastries and general decadence.  Three and a half hours later, having sampled almost everything (I couldn’t quite do the intestine soup) and basked in the atmosphere and the kind of conversation that really only comes with time and lack of agenda, it seemed like it was, perhaps, time to carry on with the day…

There are a number of places I am finding are great for one experience but that I won’t make a return trip to.  “Forgettable” seems too strong a term but, well, if the shoe fits…  Tawlet though falls in another camp.  My work schedule and budget do not necessarily allow for weekly visits but it will be a go-to when visitors call, and I hope to take in one of their cooking classes soon…