BEIRUT: Soup so hot it fogs your glasses, fondue so gooey it drips on your napkin, and raclette so moreishly fattening you convince yourself you need the extra insulation for the coming months.
While Lebanon isn’t Alpine Europe, the winter chill is just enough to stimulate cravings for these warming winter dishes, and The Daily Star knows where you’ll find satisfaction.
Soup is one of the simplest meals in the world to make, but its preparation is time consuming.
For those who haven’t got hours to put in in the kitchen, a growing number of Beirut eateries are coming to the rescue, widening the variety of soups on offer beyond the traditional lentil and popular French onion.
For one of the biggest selections, visit Brisk cafe on Hamra Street, where the options vary daily. Staples, such as thick and healthy lentil, creamy and very filling mushroom and warming tomato, are joined on occasion by potato and leek, and a particularly delicious and perfectly zingy carrot and ginger soup, among others.
Generous portions are dished up in deceptively small paper pots, making these ideal for either taking out or taking home and reheating.
If you’re in dire need of the sort of chicken broth designed to immediately soothe a case of the winter sniffles, seek out Casper and Gambini’s chicken noodle soup. Full of chopped vegetables, chunks of roasted chicken and filling noodles, it offers instant comfort.
At Urbanista, a trendy new cafe in Gemmayzeh, the much-lauded menu also features two equally appreciated soups – carrot and thyme, and French onion – both of which are highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for satisfying but relatively inexpensive sustenance while either reading or working at this comfortable Wi-Fi hotspot.
French onion soup is nothing special in Beirut, but Duo, at its branches in ABC Ashrafieh and Dabayyeh, offers a version that is likely worth a detour to obtain.
The onion concoction, complete with cheese on top, is served in an edible bowl made from homemade pain de compagne. While unique enough to be a popular menu item all year round, the restaurant says demand for the soup definitely rises in winter.
For those who hate onions, Duo also offers lentil soup and occasionally minestrone, but these are served in regular crockery – their textures, the restaurant says, are incompatible with the bread bowl.
A great spot for a hearty lentil soup is Em Nazieh on Pasteur Street, where the thick, almost stew-like soup is delicious, filling and inexpensive.
The cheapest soup in town, however, must be Le Chef’s lentil offering. It’s a thinner version than Em Nazieh’s, but if you’re on a tight budget, it’s worth knowing that the popular Gemmayzeh establishment will dish you up a hefty bowl for just LL2,000.
Requiring special equipment and ingredients, fondue and raclette – fattening, cheesy indulgences – are not easily prepared at home.
However, in the apres-ski restaurants of Faraya and at the revealingly named Raclot outlets in Jounieh and Reyfoun, they make for popular, if somewhat pricey, winter fare. In the heart of Beirut, Coop d’Etat, a summertime hotspot, has – on its rain-proofed rooftop – introduced regular raclette events to its winter schedule.
For those outside the loop on this duo of Swiss dishes, fondue involves dipping small pieces of food, usually bread, into a hot sauce – in its savory form this is typically cheese. Meanwhile, raclette is a type of cheese that is melted and typically consumed with meat and potatoes.
Raclette’s name originates from the French for “small scraper.” In the past the dish was prepared by placing the block of cheese next to a fire, and as it melted scraping off the soft part.
Montagnou is a well-known Faraya haunt famed for both fondue and raclette. The latter, however, requires a special booking.
More easily obtained is cheese fondue, which, among other cold-weather favorites, is served al la carte during the week and as part of a special Saturday set menu. A serving for two costs LL98,000.
On both its daily menu and set-weekend menu, Montagnou also offers pierrade, a special hot stone on which meats and vegetables are cooked at the diners’ table. For this, a two person serving costs LL95,000.
Raclette is available at the restaurant, but only for private dinners. Montagnou offers a special raclette menu to parties of 20-25 in a private dining room.
For walk-in raclette, the go-to option is Raclot.
Indeed, when contacted, Raclot told The Daily Star that although it has in the past tried to move away from raclette in the summer months, the demand for the dish – which is even more popular in winter – made it impossible to do so.
For $47 per person, this eatery with outlets in both Jounieh and Reyfoun offers a set menu comprising raclette, charcuterie, chicken, shrimp, salad and dessert. The price also includes the house wine, a Lebanese selection.
Raclot also serves fondue.
However, although not available on-demand, the best value raclette and fondue on offer this season is very likely found at Coop d’Etat.
On a rooftop that is as cozy in winter as it is airy in summer, Coop d’Etat will host its sixth raclette event of the season this Sunday. It has five more events planned for December.
Coop d’Etat serves a classic version of the dish, with the cheese melted on hot plates at each table and served with various cheeses, bacon, specially prepared potatoes, cornichons, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and bread. It is all washed down with a wine selected to compliment the taste of the dish.
“Raclette needs the taste of wine,” says event organizer Firas Fares, who adds that this week they’ll be serving both French and Lebanese wine with the dish. Fares adds that while red wine is more suitable with raclette, people who prefer a softer taste go for white.
With cheese fondue offered as an alternative to raclette, Coop d’Etat offers a set menu for $20 per person, with a bottle of wine included for each table of four.
In December, the restaurant will also serve chocolate fondue.
Demand for Coop d’Etat raclette events is high – early this week there remained only 10-12 spaces left for Sunday – so booking in advance is essential.