Friday, May 13, 2011

Restaurant Varouj

The most interesting Middle East Institutions are often those that fly far below the radar of the masses. A purely word-of-mouth establishment, Restaurant Varouj is one such place.

This Lebanese cookery, located in the tiny labyrinthine streets of Beirut’s Armenian enclave of Burj Hammoud, requires of its customers not just a monster appetite, but also a serious wherewithal for exploration.

There are no maps, street names or workable directions to find the place – just a general location from which to enter that Borgesian maze of laundry-draped alleyways that make up the Middle East’s most densely populated neighbourhood. Only by asking directions from a series of bleary-eyed elders and teenagers playing soccer in flip-flops will one find their way, point-by-point, to Varouj’s doorstep.

Here a father-and-son team presides over all four tables situated beneath shelves decked with Middle Eastern bric-a-brac. The mercurial, cigar-smoking elder, playing the combined role of owner, waiter, and maitre d’ is a character of the old school variety, who’s known to verbally manhandle his customers in the slightly tarnished Arabic of the Burj Hammoudi Armenians. His mild-mannered son whips up culinary storms at his command from a cooking station just a few feet behind him.

The usual Lebanese fare is on offer here – and all of it is extremely good. The prize dishes are the sujouk (spicy Armenian sausages), chicken livers, makanek (Lebanese sausages), b’tata harra (spicy homefries), and the raw kibbeh. To wash the whole thing down, order a bottle of locally made Arak (diluted with water in a pitcher and served in small glasses with ice cubes).

The novelty of the Varouj experience is amplified by the absence of printed menus or listed prices of any kind. Food is ordered ad hoc depending on what the master of ceremonies has available that day - and what he thinks you should eat!

At the end of the smorgasbord the host haphazardly tallies the meal price in an indecipherable chicken-scratch and throws it on the table. But it’s invariably less costly than what you'd expect to pay for such a meal fit for a king.

We’d add a few lines about how to find the place, but getting there through one’s own efforts is half the reward.

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