BEIRUT: Set back from the main road in an unassuming corner of Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district is Tawlet, the farmers’ kitchen of Souk el Tayeb. If you didn’t know it was there you’d never spot it.
There’s something wonderful about Tawlet, which means ‘table’ in Arabic. Maybe it’s the constantly changing menu and the rotation of cooks, or the championing of small-scale producers and the celebration of culinary traditions. Whatever it is, Tawlet is a rarity.
The restaurant all but shuns the staples of popular Lebanese cuisine, favoring instead the food of the home. Its dishes are regional, seasonal, simple. There are stews and salads, pastries and desserts. All form part of Tawlet’s ever-evolving daily buffets.
The man behind Souk el Tayeb is Kamal Mouzawak, an eccentric, flamboyant, occasionally arrogant but consistently articulate social entrepreneur. He oversees an organization that was formed to host a simple farmers’ market back in 2004, but has since grown to include restaurants such as Tawlet Beirut and Tawlet Ammiq, and a handful of guesthouses that are sprinkled sparingly across the country.
Souk el Tayeb is built around what Mouzawak describes as the “idea of coexistence through sharing food and sharing tables.” As such, a different cook from a different area prepares food from their region at Tawlet every day. They are Muslims and Christians, Lebanese and Syrians, Palestinians and Armenians. As a social enterprise, it is almost beyond reproach, generating profit to support cooks and producers above all else.
When we visit it is a Saturday afternoon in early June. The restaurant, situated at the far end of a short cul-de-sac, is all but full and there are two rooms, the smallest of which houses the buffet. The day’s menu is written on a large green board that stretches to the ceiling.
A long communal wooden table dominates the main dining area and there are plants and paintings adding splashes of color and contrast. At the far end of the room, behind a bar serving coffee and desserts, is a giant floor-to-ceiling shelving unit. Outside is the small terrace on which we sit, hidden from the sun by the shade from a carob tree.
The day’s chefs are Fadi and Nada, siblings from Dhour El Choueir, and it’s hard to know what to eat first. There’s hummus and tabbouleh, of course, and batata harra (spiced potatoes), plus an array of salads that burst with both color and aroma: freekeh with chard and mushrooms; courgettes with garlic; tomatoes with basil; grilled cauliflower and green beans.
Of the salads, it is the massaee’t batenjeen that I savor the most. A mouthwatering aubergine and tomato dish, it is made richer by the addition of onions, garlic, chickpeas and chilli pepper.
There’s bayd bil fokhara (eggs cooked in a clay dish) and lahme bi ajeen (spiced lamb flatbread). I also encounter kibbeh krass for the first time. It is plumper than the regular restaurant fare and filled with fat, finely chopped mint and onions. Mouzawak, who has been sitting inside throughout most of our meal, warns us not to eat the fat, only the meat, mint and onions, which have been additionally flavored with both sweet and black pepper. It is, like everything else on the menu, delightful.
Much of the success of Tawlet, of course, is down to Mouzawak himself. A perfectionist, a quibbler, a purist, a pedant, he takes pride in detail and is genuinely committed to Lebanon’s food and the land.
“All that I do is out of love of life and respect for life,” he once told me. “If you have this, how are you going to celebrate it? If you love life, you love to eat. If you love to eat, you love food and you respect the ingredient. I’m not trying to create a fancy restaurant or wait for a Michelin star. It’s about celebrating life. It’s about celebrating our traditions.”