BEIRUT: The work of restaurateur Liza Asseily and her husband Ziad, Liza Beirut is as much an interior design experience as it is a culinary one. This upscale Lebanese restaurant in Beirut's Achrafieh district, designed by the self-taught interior designer Maria Ousseimi, resembles a lavishly decorated Lebanese apartment and was voted one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. It’s easy to see why.
There’s the magnificent Ottoman-style windows, the Idarica Gazzoni-designed wallpaper, the bespoke lighting by architect Jan Van Lierde, and the ceramic cityscapes of Marilyn Massoud and Rasha Nawam. The restaurant’s main room, styled as a hotel lobby, even hosts a delightful Karim Chaya-designed corner bar.
“Every room stands alone and yet plays a part in the bigger composition,” said Ousseimi at the time of the restaurant’s opening in 2013. It was the second outpost of the Liza brand after Paris, which had opened in 2005.
Occupying the second floor of a former 19th century palace, there’s something deeply satisfying about dining in such glorious surroundings, where the traditional and the modern have been fused so perfectly.
Although I was unaware of the name at the time, we dined in the ‘Money Room,’ where the lower halves of the walls have been decorated with giant 10 and 50 livres Lebanese bank notes and the upper halves with custom wallpapers. A large, golden lantern hangs from the ceiling and the floors are covered with old Levantine tiles. The high ceilings provide an immense sense of openness. A sense that is only accentuated by the restaurant’s 500 square meters of floor space spread across four rooms.
The restaurant is packed. Opposite our table, beneath the words Banque du Liban, sit a large group of perhaps 15 or 20. To our left, a smaller group. To our right, two young Scandinavian women. There is a general hubbub to the place that only popularity can provide.
Ziad Asseily claims that his primary ambition with Liza was to share Lebanese cuisine the way that he loves it: fresh, light and generous. In essence, to take an array of classic Lebanese dishes and refine them.
As such, dinner begins with a sacred procession of Lebanese mezze: hommos bi tahine, moutabbal, fattouche, sfiha bel fern (small pastries with ground lamb, tomato, and pomegranate molasses), and fatayer sbenikgh bel fern (pastries with spinach, onion, tomato, sumac and lemon). There’s hindbe (chicory with caramelized onion and lemon supreme), too, and kebbe nayye (lamb tartar with bulgur, mint and spring onion). The latter is eaten with olive oil and salt and scooped up with small pieces of Arabic bread.
Of the mezze it is the makanek — small, juicy pan-fried beef sausages — that are the highlight, while daoud bacha bel berghol (lamb meatballs with bulgur) is picked from Liza’s small but intricate list of signature dishes. Its texture is smooth, its flavor rich.
The joy of Liza, however, lies not only in the quality of the dishes and in the freshness of the ingredients, but also in the reinvention of traditional Lebanese recipes. The addition of subtle flavors, the introduction of new ingredients, the reinterpretation of classic dishes. Here and there you’ll find the unusual addition of pomegranate molasses or tahina, all delivered with a finesse that has been fine-tuned in Paris and transferred to Beirut.
Yet, despite the quality and freshness of the ingredients, it is the venue that lingers longest in the memory. Instantly Instagrammable, you may be able to find tastier food elsewhere in Beirut, but you won’t be able to find a grander or more impressive place in which to eat it.
Parked in the road outside are a handful of black SUVs, their red and blue lights flashing furiously. They are not only an indicator of the restaurant’s clientele, but of its continued allure.