Taste of Lebanon hits Vietnamese palate

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Lebanese flat bread and hummus at Beirut Café & Lounge in Ho Chi Minh City

About a month ago I was walking down Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, when I couldn't help but notice a new restaurant named Beirut.

It stood out in the night with its bright LED lights shining off its purple walls and red roof, giving the place a resplendently colorful appearance.

But as I already had dinner plans, I made a mental note of the place and didn't linger to check out the menu or learn more.

Back at home, I looked up Beirut online but was only able to find out that Beirut is the capital city of Lebanon and that there is a chain of Lebanese restaurants called Beirut in Vietnam, one of which is on Hai Ba Trung Street in HCMC, while another is in Hanoi but I saw nothing about the one I'd seen on Dong Khoi Street.

So I forgot about it.

And then last week when I happened to be invited to have lunch at the Beirut restaurant on Dong Khoi Street, it struck me as such a coincidence that I was already somewhat familiar with the place.

So, I went to that lunch full of anticipation, never having eaten Lebanese food before.

It turned out that the Beirut Café & Lounge the eatery's full name is in fact the latest branch of the Beirut restaurant chain that I found online. This one also advertises authentic traditional Lebanese cuisine. Apparently, it was too new to be found on the Internet.

Inside, I was equally impressed with the contemporary décor as I was with the establishment's exterior the first time I saw it.

Beirut Cafe & Lounge

36 Dong Khoi Street, District 1,

Ho Chi Minh City

The ceiling is glossy red, while its walls are purple and covered with layer of clear plastic with strings of lights in between, which makes the whole place sparkle.

At the end of the lounge stands an uncluttered bar where guests can watch their drinks being prepared.

Colorful hookahs (water pipes used to smoke flavored tobacco called "shisha") are strewn about on the tables and are offered for free. Opened from 8 a.m. until late, the lounge welcomes guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

When we were seated at our table, there was a plate of Lebanese bread awaited us Lebanese flat bread looks nothing like European bread.

Round and flat, the bread is perfectly suited to hold food. I found it neither salty nor sweet, and quite crunchy.

The flat bread came with two small dishes: one with green olives and one the waitress called "olive sauce" made from ground olives, which looked like grainy mustard.

Though I adore olive oil, the olives themselves and the sauce weren't my favorites. They disappointed me with their bitter, acrid taste. But along with the bread, they weren't bad.

"All of the food here is cooked with olive oil, a specialty of Lebanese cuisine. And most of the dishes are cooked with cardamom, a kind of spice which is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, and also cinnamon," said Iyad Fayad, Beirut's head chef.

I also learned from him that most of the ingredients are imported from Lebanon, except those which can be bought locally, and that the main flavor of Lebanese food isn't spicy like Thai food, nor salty, nor sweet, but a bit sour.

As it was my first experience with Lebanese food, I had no idea what to order. So I asked the waitress if she could make some recommendations for me.

And then my lunch came.

First I was served "Vegetable cream soup." It had a natural sweet fragrance, tasted good and went down smooth. It's made from fresh cream mixed with ground carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, celery and pumpkin. A woman in my group even compared it to the kind of soup that she used to make for her baby.

The second course was "Daoud Basha" with "Rice Vermicelli."

Daoud Basha is a beef meatball dish cooked with tomatoes, onions, cinnamon and seven Lebanese spices. The meatballs were rolled tight and the tomatoes were really well-cooked. It tasted quite sour with too much tomato for my taste.

The waitress said rice vermicelli is an exotic Lebanese dish which uses rice that is completely dissimilar to the rice grown in Asia. It is longer and thinner than Asian rice, and not as glutinous. It is mixed with brown vermicelli, which is crumbled into half inch pieces, giving the dish an overall hue of light brown.

I was recommended to mix the Daoud Basha with the rice vermicelli and eat them together. Some people said that they prefer the dish saltier, but I was pleased with it as it was.

Lastly I tried Beirut's hummus. It was such a beautiful dish that we all exclaimed "Wow!" when it was served.

Hummus is a thick beige sauce made from chickpeas. Beirut's version came with an olive oil and lime sauce, with a sprout of peppermint. It was served with more flat bread to dip in it.

It made for such a beautiful presentation; I could hardly stand to ruin it by mixing the greenish oil with the hummus. It was like not wanting to ruin a beautifully wrapped gift by opening it. The hummus tasted slightly sour, the mixture of ground beans and mild spices was smooth and buttery. Again, it was neither salty nor sweet.

For this particular dish, the bread was softer. As Fayad explained, it is not baked for as long as the flat bread served with olives as the complimentary appetizer.

For dessert I tried five kinds of cake, which were all incredibly sweet and seemed to contain a lot of oil.

Fayad told us that all the cakes had been imported directly from Lebanon.

I left with a lingering sweetness on my tongue, feeling satisfied with my newfound knowledge about the cuisine culture of a country which I hardly knew anything about before.

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