BEIRUT: Anthony Rahayel is by no means obnoxious or pretentious. But when asked about his secret to staying fit, he firmly orders his interlocutor “to knock on wood.”
“I rarely overindulge and mostly rely on tasting,” he chuckles. The dentist-cum-photographer and author of NoGarlicNoOnions – the country’s most celebrated food blog – actually spends a considerable amount of time around food, snapping pictures and videos of decadent treats and uploading them along with thorough text to his blog and affiliated social media portals.
But it’s not his slim figure or dieting tips that Rahayel likes to deliberate on.
“It’s the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures and the details of life that I am more interested in,” he confides.
Thirty-year-old Rahayel’s allergy to garlic and onions inspired the name of his popular blog. “I didn’t want a lame name like Anthony’s blog.”
Though the blog is still young, NGNO has acquired national and international renown, with some locals and tourists planning outings and restaurant reservations based on Rahayel’s posts and precise rating system.
“I think that my critique of the food and the venues I visit has made the popularity of NGNO,” Rahayel tells The Daily Star. “I do not refrain from including negative criticism in my reviews, something this part of the world has yet to get used to.”
Rahayel points out that he never accepts invitations but rather makes impromptu visits to the places he wishes to profile. “I pay for all my meals,” he stresses.
Rahayel says his experiences – first as a top contributor to website tripadvisor.com and later as a manager and editor at Beirut Nightlife, the website that chronicles Lebanon’s social and clubbing scenes – helped him forge his identity as a culinary blogger and gain professional maturity.
“Although NGNO is barely 2 years old I feel like my purposes and objectives [for the website] have matured,” he says.
The maturity Rahayel talks about manifests itself in the new entries on his blog: A section that sheds light on Lebanon’s best street food eateries. From the juicy Lahm Baajin (meat pies) of the Mar Charbel bakery in Harajel to the exquisite Levantine ice cream concocted at Hanna Mitri’s in the Beirut district of Ashrafieh, the ambitious blogger travels the country to expose hidden culinary gems.
For the author, labeling NGNO as a “blog for the masses that features producers for the masses” is not an offense, but rather a sought-after target.
To mark Christmas this year, Rahayel visited the kitchens of Wooden Bakery and spent the day with their chef patissier to familiarize readers with the elaborate process of making the Lebanese’s favorite Christmas dessert, the famous Buche de Noel ( Christmas yule log).
“I know you’re going to question my choice,” he quips, adding that connoisseurs would automatically opt for patisseries like Pate a Choux or Cannelle, seeing that they are Lebanon’s best dessert parlors by far.
In his blog entry, Rahayel makes it a point to highlight that Wooden Bakery – Lebanon’s biggest bakery – produces more than 5,000 logs in just two days, every year during the Christmas season.
“The majority of the Lebanese have not heard of or do not know where Pate a Choux and Cannelle are located,” he continues. “My aim is to cater to all tastes and budgets.”
A fan of “holistic experiences,” Rahayel includes a wealth of reading material on his website. In addition to restaurant reviews, NGNO is also a travel blog, where Rahayel – a big traveler – chronicles his escapades. The website also includes a news corner and a section dedicated to the latest food-gadget trends.
Earlier this month, NGNO won the Best Blog about Beirut in a people’s choice award on Time Out Beirut’s Best of 2013 awards.
“We just won the Best Blog About Beirut! This is the indeed the best Christmas gift one could ask for. I’m overwhelmed with joy – knowing that people out there love, read and have voted for NGNO,” Rahayel wrote.
But despite his arguments about “maturity” and the necessity of enjoying life’s simple pleasures, the NGNO blogger has grand ambitions. In the future, Rahayel aspires to travel Lebanon and maybe other countries in the region in search of unique eateries and food traditions.
“I watch Guy Fieri’s ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ on Food Network almost every evening,” Rahayel says. “Although many people compare me to [British chef] Jamie Oliver, I have not watched his shows and I consider myself a Guy Fieri fan.”
Asked about his criteria for good restaurants, the Lebanese blogger says that to him “nothing is set in stone, and I have learned to rely on my hunch and my feeling.”
“But I can say that service and attitude count a lot,” he continues. “Finding a hair in your meal is not that big of a deal because you’re occasionally prone to finding a hair on your platter at home.”
What matters, according to Rahayel, is how the restaurant’s personnel address the problems their clients could face. “If I don’t like the meal I ordered, I expect the staff to be accommodating rather than defensive,” he adds.
“This is what mostly counts.”
As for prospects for the New Year in light of the protracted political crisis, Rahayel is optimistic that Lebanon’s culinary scene will never cease to be vibrant, adding that new concepts will continue to mushroom.
He winds up the interview saying that during 2014, wine bars will become the new trend and the popularity of Asian cuisine will witness a revival.
“In 2013, it was all about gourmet burgers and brunch venues. My assessment is that in 2014, wine bars will become the new trend and Asian cuisine will gain in popularity again.”
Best Sushi: Le Sushi Bar
Ashrafieh, Abdel Wahab el Inglizi Street +9611338555
Best Wine 2013: Ixsir EL 2010
Ixsir Winey, Basbina, Batroun +96171631613
Best Gelato: Oslo-Made in Heaven
Mar Mikhael, Madrid Street +9611576464 and +9613369313
Best Arabic Ice Cream: Hanna Mitri
Ashrafieh, Mar Mitr +9611322723
Best Gourmet Burger: Frosty Palace
Mar Mikhael, +9611449595
Best Brunch: Four Seasons Hotel
Prof. Wafic Sinno Avenue, Minet El Hosn +9611761000
Best Wine Bar: Les Caves de Taillevent
Ashrafieh, Les Jardins de Tabaris +9611217883
Best French Bistro: Le Petit Gris
Saifi, Rue du Petit College +9611443737
Best Fine Dining: Al Dente
Albergo Hotel, Abdel Wahab el Inglizi Street +9611202201
Best Lebanese: Fouad Restaurant
Hrajel, Nabeh al-Mghara +9613216639