Fuel up on hummus, grilled meat and baba ghanoush at Garage Beirut
When in Lebanon looking to hail a vehicle to Beirut, ask a local to point you towards the "Garage Beirut." There you’ll find cars, buses, whatever takes you to the big city.
In Montreal, ask for "Garage Beirut," and you’ll be directed south of Ste-Catherine Street, past the off-putting McDonald’s, to a small, tidy and welcoming restaurant that makes some of the best Lebanese in town.
Care is evident, from the clarity of the menu and the openness of the staff to the freshness of the food. The black-and-steel decor is accented by colourful jars of preserves by the window. On the sill is an orchid that was the envy of my gardener-wannabe friend. After we ordered our leisurely lunch, I peered into the back to see the cook pouring charcoal onto the grill, then an assistant coaxing the fire with a hairdryer.
Sure, there are pita sandwiches for a quick bite, but it’s worth lingering for grilled meats, salads and appetizers. Evenings and Sunday brunch journey beyond the usual downtown Middle Eastern fare with the likes of shanklish (aged, herbed cheese), balila (chickpea salad) with eggs, or kishik (fermented dried yogurt and cracked wheat) cooked with lamb confit. Ask for details – the warm waitress or cheerful owner will happily expound.
First off, we had a tangy smooth hummus with warm crumbled ground lamb, and a smoky coarse baba ghanoush, which held a peppery pool of olive oil that pleasingly caught in the back of the throat.
A plate of grilled meat for two included ground beef kebab, kafta (the same, spiced with parsley), beef cubes tinged with cinnamon, and some very tender chicken chunks. These were arrayed on a large pita sauced lightly with tomato, pickled purple onion and a liberal dusting of citric sumac powder. An intense garlic mayo for the chicken was glossy and fluffy like beaten egg whites.
Accompanying fuchsia-coloured pickled turnips had a fresh sour bite. Cucumber pickles were harder to love, though I suspect these extra-fermented strips would make some ex-patriots weep for home. On the side come excellent golden and crisp fries, peeled and cut in-house.
Yes, we made room for dessert. No, we didn’t regret it. The unusual knefe was a slab of semolina crust on top of melted cheese, exactingly soaked to extract the salt, topped with a delicate syrup of orange blossom and rose. The owner’s uncle makes the whole-pistachio baklava, marvellously light and pure.
As we left, I spied four hefty eggplants slowly cooking on the grill. I imagined them going into tomorrow’s baba ghanoush, and vowed to make Garage Beirut a return destination.
1238 Mackay St.; 514-564-2040
Meal for two: $20-$50