Fusing Lebanese and Mexican to mixed results

BEIRUT: The menu at Frida – a Mexican-Lebanese fusion restaurant located in a beautiful old house in Ashrafieh – perfectly reflects the eatery’s ethos. Covered with a riot of colorful flowers, it ostensibly takes its inspiration from artist Frida Kahlo’s Mexican heritage, but the outcome is decidedly Lebanese. On the back of the folding concertina is two-tone reproduction of one of Kahlo’s famous self-portraits, with a local twist – in line with the national obsession with perfect grooming, the artist’s distinctive monobrow has been judiciously plucked.

Arriving one humid August evening, my companions and I elect to forgo the interior’s plush red lampshades, comfortable if unattractive banquette seating and hand-painted murals of Mexican peasants wrapped in shawls and clutching woven baskets, and instead sit outside on the terrace.

Lit by old-fashioned street lamps and adorned with attractive wrought-iron and glass furniture, it provides a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere and affords a view of the beautiful building in which the restaurant is housed, with its distinctive circular balconies and rustic red shutters.

We are pleasantly surprised to find that the terrace is soon full, surprising on a Monday night, and the gentle buzz of conversation soothes us as we discuss how to tackle the extensive menu. Eventually we agree to order a selection of hot and cold mezze, selecting from the items with “Frida” in the title, in the hope that they will best reflect the restaurant’s approach to Mexican-Lebanese fusion.

Things start off well. A bread basket featuring a selection of crispy, fried fragments and flat bread, flavored with an inventive blend of fennel seeds and juicy sultanas, is accompanied by a bowl of sliced green olives and paprika-sprinkled cheddar cheese. We enjoy the simple-yet-pleasing appetizer as we wait for the mezze to arrive.

We consider sampling one of the house cocktails, rumored to be spectacular, but are slightly put off by the equally spectacular prices (LL16,500 for a margarita) and in the end decide to keep our wits about us and make do with a glass of beer or arak apiece.

Perhaps this is a mistake. When the main dishes arrive things go downhill. The dish of three Frida Mini Fajitas (LL13,500) is flavorful and balanced, if slightly underseasoned, the marinated beef nicely offset by the delicate mushrooms, capsicum and cheddar cheese. The thin Lebanese bread used to wrap the filling, samosa-style, is crispy and light, constituting a Lebanese take on a Mexican staple. The Frida Potatoes (LL9,500), however, are an enormous disappointment.

Five thick slabs of potato, which appear to have been first boiled until soft and then grilled until inedible, are garnished with “melted cheddar” (to liberate these words from the quotation marks would be an insult to British cheese) that has a mayonnaise-like consistency and an unpleasant flavor. Topped with sliced mint and served with a side of sour cream and a slice of lemon, the dish is at once bland and sickly.

A couple of small mouthfuls are enough to convince me that I would not voluntarily consume any more of the cheese sauce if it was slathered over Clive Owen’s manly chest. After some discussion, my companions and I decide that it resembles the pumped cheese served with nachos at the cinema, but without the flavor. We do not finish it.

The Frida Markouk (LL14,500) is better. Five beautifully presented miniwraps – containing chicken strips, potato wedges, guacamole, salsa and the ubiquitous melted cheddar cheese – are served with a side of refreshing pico de gallo, its citrusy tang the perfect complement to the markouk, which has a lovely texture but is extremely rich.

The cumulative effect of the first three dishes is slightly nauseating, but happily the richness is alleviated slightly by our fourth choice, the controversial Frida Cucumbers (LL8,500), four small cucumbers hollowed out and stuffed with labneh flavored with sumac and zaatar, the ends coated with a flavorful blend of the dried herbs.

“A dumb dish,” announces my outspoken Dutch companion, “if food can qualify as dumb. It’s nice if you’re a hungry farmer or enormous truck driver, but it doesn’t belong in a nice fusion restaurant.”

I disagree, finding that the crispy cucumber, with its filling of sour, slightly spicy yoghurt, provides a palette-cleansing respite from the cream-laden guacamole and abundance of cheese. I do concede, however, that the awkwardly shaped vegetables, although nicely presented, are difficult to consume while maintaining any semblance of dignity and decorum.

Feeling somewhat weighted down we decide to forego dessert, and ask our efficient if impersonal waiter for the bill. At just under $50 for three, the prices are reasonable, but we leave feeling that the setting, rather than the cheddar-centric food, is Frida’s strong suit. Even if the murals are a little, well, cheesy.

Frida is located in the Al Hayek sector of Ashrafieh. For more information call 01-333-226.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2013, on page 2.




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