The traditional Lebanese menu at Li Beirut in Jumeirah Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi, offers well-cooked dishes with an unusual twist.
Restaurant Review: Lebanon like you've never had it at Li Beirut
Like virtually every other Lebanese restaurant, Li Beirut offers a long, familiar list of mezze and traditional dishes. Unlike the rest, however, this elegant dining room also offers a concise list of remarkable "modern Lebanese" specialities.
On a recent visit we found that these few dishes, unusual if not unique, crowded out all thought of the usual little plates and grills. Well, almost all.
The setting alone tells you that Li Beirut is not just another fattoush-and-arayes place. As you approach the Etihad Towers after dark, their strange angles and looming shapes, outlined in slanting neon, evoke a future imagined on the covers of 1950s science-fiction magazines. But the Jumeirah Hotel's lobby, though impressively spacious, is soothingly more human in scale; by the time you settle into the discreet comfort of Li Beirut, you'll feel at home even if you are - as we were - the only diners there. The spacious dining room, artfully irregular in shape so as to feel cosy, is decorated in sedate charcoal grey, with red touches providing warmth. A long window wall reveals a spacious balcony that will offer, in cooler weather and once the nearby construction is finished, charming outdoor dining overlooking the hotel pools.
The "modern" menu offers just six starters and four mains. While studying these we tugged our forelock to the traditional menu by ordering moutabal, which was fine, smoky and unsweet. This modest investment earned us the full panoply of corner-diner Lebanese trimmings, deftly upscaled: olives, warm, puffy Arabic bread, smoked almonds and a graceful pewter-coloured bowl with arugula, celery and the like.
Our appetisers eclipsed the moutabal. Foie gras kebbeh was a formidable slab of this controversial delicacy, pan-seared but pink and warm inside, underneath a halved kebbeh shell holding a few more morsels of the rich liver. The delicate foie gras was enhanced by textural contrast with the kibbeh and magnified by the sweet accompaniments, walnut chutney and bits of honey pear.
Two pan seared sea scallops were served on a bed of mograbia, or pearl-sized Arabic pasta, that had been cooked with a few chickpeas, and, as Nidal Daou, the hotel's executive oriental chef, told us, "cream and, of course, some butter".
The main dishes were as unusual. Halwayo, a tender, robustly flavoured local fish, was pan-cooked and served with "crushed" potatoes - halfway between grated and mashed in texture, tender and moist but slightly coarse and lightly tinged with cumin. The fish stood up very well to the zesty potatoes and saffron added flavour, but the saffron foam seemed rather faddish. A ratatouille with diced mussels was more than the dish needed; fortunately, we had ordered a side dish of simply grilled vegetables - carrot, tomato, capsicum, asparagus and more - that seemed more appropriate. The restaurant's much-discussed zataar-crusted rack of lamb lived up to expectations: the two generous pieces arrived medium-rare as requested, glowingly pink inside their dark coating. The rich jus was all the meat needed; shavings of truffle were all but lost in the strong tastes.
The modern dessert we tried showed as much imagination. Tulle pastry cigars filled with honey fudge arrived leaning like a postmodern sculpture against a stack of crispy kunafa pastry rounds separated by a ricotta-like cream and adorned with bits of chocolate truffle.
Umm Ali, from the traditional menu, was a sophisticated version of this classic bread pudding. Short on bread but long on raisins and slivered pistachios, cashews and toasted almonds, it was moist, light and subtle.
Our waiter, well-trained and proud of the food he served, was eagerly attentive. And there were some nice touches, from warm facecloths on arrival to little gift boxes of chocolates as we left.
Li Beirut in the Jumeirah Hotel at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi, is open from noon to 3pm (except during Ramadan) and from 7pm until midnight. A meal for two cost Dh865, including service charge and tax. For reservations, call 02 811 5666 or book through the website. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito.