Secret garden eatery meets urban junkyard

BEIRUT: Some call it The Junkyard, others The Container or The Yellow Container, and yet others The Banana Place, but any confusion surrounding the name of Beirut’s first popup restaurant is entirely intentional.

“We wanted to create some confusion, so people will talk about it more,” says Guy Salmé, brand developer for Food for Thought, the food consultancy group behind the transformation of a vacant concrete lot in Mar Mikhael into an outdoor eatery constructed almost entirely from recycled materials.

Just like the popular popup stores that have gained favor with Beirut’s shoppers over the past few years, the idea behind a popup restaurant is that it’s temporary: It opens for a period of time and then closes again, either permanently or to reappear at a later date on an alternative site.

The model has been successful in North America and Europe, with the restaurants’ novelty and innovation attracting a food-loving clientele always eager to be ahead of dining-out trends.

In the case of Food for Thought, the business’ co-creators Mario Jr. Haddad and chef Tomas Reger saw the concept as an opportunity to both promote their brand and fulfill a number of more personal desires simultaneously.

“This is our way of playing in the office,” Salmé says, although he doesn’t seek to deny that it’s a game played with a very pragmatic purpose.

The company was already renting the vacant Mar Mikhael lot, Salmé explains, its intention being to build a small Italian restaurant on it. However, as a license to commence construction had yet to be acquired, the space was sitting idle.

“We said to ourselves, ‘What can we do with this field? We’re paying rent and we need to generate money or awareness around the brand, what can we do?’ So we decided to start doing this,” Salmé readily discloses.

The temporary nature of the venture means that extravagant investment is unlikely to yield sufficient return, so resourcefulness took the lead in the design of the space.

A yellow shipping container houses the establishment’s kitchen, and tables and chairs not in use in the company’s other restaurants, Al-Falamanki and Le Sushi Bar, were redeployed to the site.

Using recycled material and scrap, Ramy al-Khazen, a cousin of Haddad’s with no background in interior design or architecture, has succeeded in creating a kind of mad amalgamation of lush secret garden and urban junkyard.

Wooden decking and long green grass conceal the concrete of the original lot, while shrubs and flowers are scattered throughout the space. Colorful graffiti energizes the surrounding brick walls. An island bar is constructed from disused metal drums topped with planks of wood – a detached car door serves as its staff entrance. Empty paint pots adorn the bathroom entrance. Broken televisions have Tom and Jerry stickers humorously stuck on. An old washing machine becomes a feature when randomly mounted on a wall. Elsewhere, a Mona Lisa print is incongruous but quirky. Bleached out soda containers and other pieces of trash somehow become tastefully decorative when hung from a welded metal awning above the dining area, and an old, imposing-looking boiler serves as both a sculpture-like feature and a flowerpot.

Looking around, Salmé jokingly speculates that Khazen, who owns an arak factory in Lebanon, may have consumed a rather significant quantity of the alcoholic drink prior to designing the space.

Yet, somehow the strange collection of objects, alongside chef Reger’s unpredictable menu, makes for a strange alchemy that draws diners in night after night.

“It appears the crowds like the idea,” Salmé says, “We’re fully booked [every night].”

For the venue’s 32-year-old chef, Reger, the project was about more than just good business sense; it presented him with the opportunity to get back in the kitchen.

“Food for Thought is a company that gets hired to create concepts or redo restaurants,” the chef says, explaining that this has meant he’s not “actually cooked much” in recent times.

“This was [a chance] for me to have fun, and [for us to] take things to the extreme a little bit,” he tells The Daily Star.

Reger leads the kitchen at the Mar Mikhael location, working in the sweltering heat of the shipping container to prepare a different menu each night.

The food served is entirely dependent on what Reger’s suppliers and local vegetable stores have in stock each day.

“The chef contacts the suppliers each day. He sees what they have. Everything that is fresh, he’ll buy it,” Salmé says.

“He goes to the vegetable stores as well. Then he goes to the office and starts brainstorming. So every day he comes up with a new menu.

“It’s all to promote the slow food concept. You have to enjoy the food, take the fresh food out of the market and use it instead of importing stuff we don’t need. You don’t want to taste food in off seasons,” he adds.

Reger’s work with Le Sushi Bar and Jasmine Room, both Food for Thought eateries, means he is very familiar with Asian foods and cooking techniques and says the cuisine embodies a lightness and freshness which he favors.

However, what he’s producing at the popup restaurant is not exclusively Asian.

“He’s a big fan of Italian cuisine,” Salmé says, adding: “It’s mixed food fusion [at the popup].”

For instance, Tuesday night, the menu included beef with a stew of mushrooms, chicken with a summer stew consisting of very light sautéed vegetables held together with tomato juice, a lentil and quinoa salad, a grilled vegetable salad, chicken skewers and a pesto made with pumpkin seeds and parsley.

But, whatever the cultural origin or influences of his dishes, Reger likes to make sure they are all sharable: “I slice and portion everything into small pieces so that [diners] can actually pass it around. It works the best way. I don’t like when people have a big plate and they just have it in front of them and they just stuff themselves ... I think it just gets boring after two or three bites. So, I think it’s actually better when you put it in the middle and everyone just tastes a bit.”

Reger adds that the initial idea was to have a tasting menu, but the popup’s popularity has made this impossible. “We’re just feeding so many people that we can’t ... We grew much more popular than we expected,” Reger says.

For the moment, he is enjoying the experiment, relishing the challenge of creating unique meals daily for 60 to 70 diners with the help of just two assistant chefs. However, the fun can’t last forever.

Beyond the transitory nature inherent in the concept of a popup restaurant, Food for Thought’s project will have its time called by a far more forceful master: Lebanon’s winter downpour.

Based entirely outdoors, it is all but certain that the venue can’t survive the season change.

“Let’s see if the climate will let us open until November,” Salmé says hopefully, but he knows he’s being unrealistic and so adds: “I think [we’ll close] in a month and a half.”

The popup restaurant is located just behind the United gas station in Mar Mikhael. It is open Monday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Reservations are recommended for the dining area, while the bar operates on a first-come-first-served basis.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 06, 2012, on page 2.




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