Phnom Penh Restaurant Reviews: BeirutMarch 23, 2012
Beware the Ides of March. That’s all I have for a snappy intro. The day had started at 5am, poorly, and went downhill from there. So I was not in the best of moods when we turned up at Beirut, the latest restaurant to clamor for a piece of the local restaurant scene. Luckily the friendly staff and enticing smells from the kitchen promised to help me at least break even.
With the recent closings of Le Liban and Le Cedre, the options for Middle Eastern cuisine in town shrank considerably, but word-of-mouth reviews of Beirut had been positive, so we ventured forth. We started with the Classic Mezze plate, a nice portion for $8. Hummous, Baba Ganoush, Tabouleh, falafel, Kebbe and Sambousik were loaded onto a huge plate with fresh pita bread. Tabouleh salad was fresh and light. This traditional salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and parsley can be a bit bland, but the abundance of slivered onions and hint of oil and lemon dressing gave it a nice, sharp taste. The hummous was heavy on the garlic and salt, but otherwise good and had a thick, creamy texture. Undercooked eggplant can leave a sharp, bitter taste on the tongue, and often tanks baba ganoush. Thankfully here the chunky dip had a perfect blend of smoky and tangy flavors, and great texture.
What is grenade molasses? It’s listed as an ingredient in the Kebbe, along with minced beef, crushed wheat and pine nuts, all of which is enveloped in a thin puff pastry. Whatever it is, it tasted great and was my favorite thing we ate. (note: Google sort of implies it might be pomegranate syrup – sorry I’m a lazy google searcher. God Bless Google, how did we ever win bets without it?)
My British dining companion fell for the Sambousik, a similar looking pastry of shortbread with minced beef and Lebanese spices, though I found that one tasty but more bland. The only disappointment was the falafel, a solid representative of the ubiquitous dish, but lacking in spice and complexity. Good but not the best I’ve had. Fresh mint leaves and pickles rounded out the plate, along with tahini for dipping.
At Beirut kebabs are cooked on the wooden spears, then removed and served on a plate with salad and fries, with a pita bread if you want to assemble it into a sandwich. The bread is grilled with oil, pickles, onions, parsley, pepper and spices, which makes for a great, spicy sandwich.
The chicken was fabulous – tender and full of flavor from a rich marinade and a nice smoky grilled taste. It comes with tzatziki, and the yogurt and garlic works nicely against the char of the meat.
The lamb was meaty and tasted great, but was a bit tougher. It comes with a thick, rather bland chickpea sauce, but tasted better with tahini. The salad is a mix of fresh carrots, peppers, tomatoes, pickles and grilled onions, a nice break from the meat and bread. Fries are unexpectedly good – crisp, salty and lightly spiced, and go well with the different sauces. The usual beer suspects are on offer; wine isn’t on the menu but there is house red and white available. The white was definitely budget, but drinkable and cold, and $3 for a decent-sized glass.
The fan-cooled space is quite casual, more of a café / diner feel than a proper restaurant. But the place has a lively atmosphere, and the owner and his girlfriend are welcoming and friendly. An eclectic mix of Middle Eastern photos and art work adorn the walls and authentic if slightly manic music was playing at a reasonable volume. Little touches like comfortable seating, pretty pillows makes the place cozy and inviting; a few tables spill outside for street-side dining – a nice option if the occasional roaring truck or motorbike doesn’t bother you.
As we were winding down and thinking to leave, the owner presented us with free dessert – delicious milky custard with crushed pistachio nuts and light syrup was the perfect end, rich but not too heavy or sweet. The portion was huge and the thick, amber glass it came in was beautiful, and looked home-made. A perfect end to the night and I’ll definitely return on a less cursed day.
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh (across from Titanic)
Supper for two, approx $30