There are times that I forget I live in the Middle East up here in my perch in Achrafieh. Like I wrote last week, it really does feel like Europe…ok, that might be a stretch, but compared to some parts of Beirut, it’s an oasis of calm. The fancy areas we tend to frequent feel sanitised, residents speak mostly French or English to each other, and spend their summers either out of the country or in their mountain homes. It’s like there are two Beiruts.
This past Saturday, my husband home once again, we headed out in a taxi in search of a garden center I’d seen passing by on the seaside highway just north of town. We needed houseplants to fill up the empty corners of our living room and perhaps a couple of trees for our terrace. Some balconies here look like veritable rain forests, overflowing with jasmine vines and palm trees. But I had never encountered a proper plant shop in my many walks around the streets. So we drove North, cars and trucks merging onto the lane-less road at top speeds without regard for the other cars. I just tried to keep my eyes on the sunlight dancing on the sea, thinking if these were my last moments, at least they’d be filled with beauty. My husband sat up front talking to the driver as he always did, trying to describe to him where I’d seen this place in the past.
We get some of our most useful information from taxi drivers here. They’re all meteorologists, politicians, tour guides, really anything you’d like them to be. My husband told one I was a chef and suddenly he was an expert in the kitchen too. Another found out my husband was a journalist and lo and behold, this guy was one too and could offer his help at any time….for a small fee. Everyone is a wheeler dealer, full of advice, suggestions, proposals. A safe topic is usually the weather and even I, with my halting Arabic, can have a short back and forth. “When will it finally get cooler?” Last month we were told that we had only 15-20 days of heat and humidity left. Then, once the humidity starts to wane, the heat will slowly go. It’s a science, apparently. Someone else told me that the weather always changes on Ascension Day in mid-August. It’s always overcast and cooler and the start of the new weather pattern. And you know what? It was!
Anyway, apparently the garden center I’d seen is only open for the summer season and it had already closed for the year. All that was left was a big parking lot. We’d been deposited on the sidewalk at the far end of Mar Mikhael, not far from the Airbnb we’d stayed in on our first visit to Beirut back in February. It’s an area slowly being gentrified, full of bars and clubs for a younger crowd, busy every night with valet parking attendants and reckless young men driving very expensive cars. However, it was lunchtime, the last Saturday before the end of summer and everyone was either still sleeping off their Friday nights or out in the countryside somewhere. We decided to take advantage and go for lunch at Onno, a postage stamp sized Armenian restaurant nearby that is reputed to be delicious, but so small it’s often difficult to get into.
In the blazing sun we carefully walked across bridge over the what’s left of the Beirut River this time of year, into Bourj Hammoud. It was here, on the North side of the river back in the beginning of the 20th century, that survivors of the Armenian genocide, who had fled their native country, were allowed to set up shacks and establish a community in Lebanon. Armenians, known to be good at fine craftsmanship, talented mechanics, and excellent in the kitchen (among other things) have made a thriving hub of culture and industry that still exists today. You hear Armenian on the streets and the people look very different. I absolutely love it.
What a stark contrast to sleepy Mar Mikhael. The narrow alleys bustling with people who were going about their Saturday business, taking advantage of a day off work to go to the butcher, the pharmacy, the upholstery shop, the mechanic. Suddenly I was back in the Middle East…and very happy to be so.
We found Onno underneath a highway overpass and it was distinctly uninviting in its decor, but somehow that was very promising to me. Upstairs in the four table dining room we quickly decided on the mezze style food we would share: cold stuffed eggplant with a yoghurt sauce, stuffed vine leaves, sujuk (sausage sort of like chorizo) with peppers, hummus with chopped meat and almonds, and manti (dumplings).
Almost immediately the food started coming up the stairs. I loved it because while many of the ingredients are similar to those used in Levantine cuisine, they are used in subtly different ways. There’s not nearly as much spicing in the various stuffings, but more fresh herbs. As far as I can tell there’s more emphasis on the use of fresh ingredients with lots of sumac, pomegranate molasses, and yoghurt throughout. And the manti are a truly special dish! The little dumplings are only partially wrapped in dough so the meat is exposed, creating a little star-like parcel, then the dumplings are cooked (in the oven I’m presuming) making the dough crispy before they are slathered in a yoghurt and sumac sauce table side. It is one of my all time favorite things to eat.
Completely content and happy the garden store hadn’t been found, we decided to explore the streets nearby just a bit before heading home. Just around the corner from Onno is a pedestrian market street with butchers, spice shops, green grocers, and all manner of repair workshops. Too full from lunch and too hot, we decided to come back when it cools down just a bit to explore further, to enjoy the chaos.