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In Beirut, a feast de resistance

Defying the violence, a small group of Lebanese chefs and gourmets has kept restaurants open and is working to promote organic food.

June 04, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

Beirut — MONDAY night, 9 p.m.

The darkened streets were eerily empty.

At Bread, there were five people at a window table and a couple at the bar.

"It looks promising," said Nemr Abboud, co-owner of the restaurant. "Yesterday, we had zero. Today for lunch, zero."

Half an hour later, Kamal Mouzawak, a leading proponent of organic farming in Lebanon, and three Italian companions sat down at another window table.

"This is resistance," Mouzawak said. "Resistance is trying to have a regular life."

In recent days, there has been little regular life in Beirut. The army has been fighting an Al Qaeda-linked group in the northern part of the country, and bombs have gone off in the capital and elsewhere. Tourism has ground to a halt, and the normally hedonistic Lebanese have been staying at home.

In a sort of mutiny of the bounty, a small cadre of gourmets and bons vivants has defiantly kept restaurants and produce markets open. They have pulled off a bread festival and held several dinners for visiting Italians with the Slow Food movement, which encourages biodiversity and saving traditional foods around the world.

"Food is important, but more so is going out," Abboud said. "It's an act of defiance."

On this night, Bread's chef and co-owner, Walid Ataya, was serving everything on the menu. For starters: raw artichokes and arugula, peppery merguez sausages, warm octopus salad and tartare de sardine -- raw sardines in a brine of ginger and cilantro. Among the main courses, the grilled swordfish steak covered with capers, anchovies and bread crumbs drew special praise from the Italian guests, as did the seafood with frikeh, or green wheat.

The chef and his diners at the small table overflowing with food weaved a conversation in French, English, Arabic and Italian as they sampled Lebanese wines from the Bekaa Valley.

The dessert was Ataya's piece de resistance: a classic apple pie, a perfection of buttery dough, sweet and juicy slices of fruit and a touch of cinnamon.

This was not a night to watch the carbs.

"Tutto e molto buono," said Luca Fabbri, a Slow Food representative, blowing the chef a verbal kiss.

ATAYA, a former architect and self-taught chef, uses only organic and local ingredients, taking his inspiration from such chefs as Nancy Silverton and Paul Prudhomme.

On his menu, which changes daily, he has written: "Local fish only. We are proud of our fishermen."

The small restaurant, which has a curved whitewashed ceiling and chunky wood furniture, resembles a Roman trattoria. Like Silverton, co-founder of Campanile and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, Ataya also sells bread from his bakery, the Bread Republic.

He and Abboud are part of a group of Lebanese culinary celebrities that also includes Mouzawak; agriculture activist Rami Zurayk; and Johnny Farah, owner of the famous Casablanca restaurant and the godfather of organic cuisine in Beirut.

A few years ago, Ataya decided to expand Bread Republic. Abboud, also an architect, quit his practice to join the restaurant. Farah, who also owns several fashion stores here and abroad, threw his weight behind the venture, and the trio opened for business at Christmas 2004.

Two months later, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive bombing a few miles from the restaurant in Gemayzeh, a trendy neighborhood where decaying Ottoman buildings house hole-in-the wall eateries and bars. Unrest followed, with more assassinations and sectarian tensions. Last summer, Israel shelled Lebanese cities during a 34-day war with the militant Shiite group Hezbollah.

Bread stayed open throughout -- the only restaurant in the area that did.

"It's like someone hits you in the head and you fall down," Abboud said. "Then you have two months of good work and everyone regains hope. It's a cycle."

Restaurateurs and residents alike say that this latest wave of bombings in the capital, which have killed one and injured dozens in various districts, has had a more chilling effect on Beirut's nightlife than Israel's artillery assault, which is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people across the country.

"We've never had four months of good work in a row," Abboud said. "I take it day by day. We hope for the best, but we have no expectations."

The previous day, Mouzawak had arranged a bread festival in the cobblestoned heart of Byblos, an ancient city north of Beirut. Two U.S. travel writers had flown in to judge a competition among Lebanese bakers.

This small country on the eastern Mediterranean has a mild climate, and producers grow many of the same fruits and vegetables as farmers in California. As in the Napa Valley, a multitude of vineyards dot the Bekaa Valley, which borders Syria.

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