BEIRUT: Asian plum sauce and white platters stacked to the ceiling tower above a busy chef clanging away on an iron wok and his tiny staff frantically cleaning shrimp, julienning carrots and washing dishes.
Jai – a kitchen serving up decently priced East Asian cuisine for take away and catering only – officially opened Monday in Hamra, but passersby couldn’t have guessed that by the brisk business over the past week.
“Apparently, I’m filling a need,” chef and owner Wael Lazkani said. “People are loving it, there are 10 people sitting here, in the middle of the kitchen every night with sauces flying over their heads.”
Lazkani, a man trained in competitive Michelin restaurants from Montreal to London, was looking for a change of pace when he moved back to Lebanon. He planned to open Jai kitchen slowly, taking his time to taste the curry, perfect the naan and open a formal dining room when and if the time felt right.
But over the past two weeks, somehow, news leaked about the Pad Thai, the butter chicken, the crispy samosas filled with vegetables and even his original Indian Caesar salad.
Orders during the soft opening have inundated the staff of five, including Lazkani and his mother. And at night, the single plastic table constructed to comfortably seat two is crammed with friends, friends of friends and often complete strangers.
Jai’s menu comprises Lazkani’s favorite dishes from East Asian countries, mainly Thailand, India and China, but also a few dishes from Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong.
Jai, at its essence, offers the same caliber Asian food as any of Beirut’s fine dining destinations, but with none of the pretense – maybe a plastic chair, if you’re lucky. “As a chef my world revolves around the kitchen,” Lazkani said. “I looked for what I could do with just a kitchen.”
Without the cost of waiters and bedazzling dining room design, Lazkani was able to keep the prices reasonable and focus on the food.
Lazkani began cooking while studying at McGill University in Montreal. He was serving up fare for hockey players when he realized food offered more fulfillment than his degree in political science, he said.
Lazkani moved from culinary school in Geneva to Michelin-starred restaurant Le Toque in Montreal and went on to become sous-chef at the Mandarin Oriental in London. His training was a flurry of flavor-infused foams and cutthroat competitiveness.
That was until he met the executive chef from Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. Competitiveness among the staff astounded the foreign chef, who was used to people spending their careers perfecting a single dish.
“At his restaurant he hires someone just to make the spring rolls every day for the rest of his life, until they’re perfect,” Lazkani said.
“It changed my whole idea of food. I wanted to take it easy, do it well and just make good food.”
Thus the idea of the humble Jai kitchen was born and it took six years of saving from catering jobs, traveling and taste testing to make it a reality.
The chef traveled to India, Vietnam and Thailand and has spent the past nine months developing recipes – like finicky Indian flatbread, called naan, and homemade curry paste.
Opening in Lebanon saw Lazkani realize some of the challenges local restaurants faced in preparing foreign cuisine, he said. The country’s supply chain for imported goods is unreliable. The worry that one day suppliers would be out of a necessary ingredient drove him to make the majority of Jai’s sauces, curries and flavorings from scratch.
“I try as much as I can to break down recipes,” he said. “They taste 100 times better, and it saves on food miles.”
Lazkani canvassed the city for shops catering to its many ethnic communities. In Dowra for instance, he stumbled upon a cornucopia of useful ingredients among the Sri Lankan grocery stores – banana blossoms, for instance, and curry leaves.
Making sauces, breads and dips from scratch also helps keep the prices low. A meal off the entree list – a portion sized big enough for two – will set one back about $12.
Lazkani’s philosophy in serving East Asian fare is to educate without ignoring local preferences.
“I don’t want to force authenticity on anyone,” he said. So the chef has toned down the spice in the green curry, Asian-ized familiar salads and stuck to popular meats like chicken, beef and shrimp.
He’s also paid special attention to health by cutting the cream and butter by half in a recipe for Indian butter chicken stew and made a Caesar salad from tender tandoori chicken and herb-infused yogurt dressing. The dumplings were translucent and crisp, and had none of the doughy, heaviness found in more common preparations.
The result of Lazkani’s hard work is a menu ranging from rare-to-find dishes like general tsao chicken, Singapore noodles and pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup, to well-known classics like peanuty chicken satay, tandoori chicken sandwiches and basic sweet and sour stir fry.
Jai is located off Hamra’s main road, facing Haigazian University. For more information or to place an order, call 01-341-940.