BEIRUT: Ask a foreigner what image is conjured when Beirut is mentioned and they’re likely to paint a verbal picture either of destruction or of glamor, some associating the city with war, others with the 1950s and 1960s glory days, when Beirut described as the Paris of the Middle East.
London’s newest pop-up concept restaurant, Mile High, has opted for the latter choice, this month promising to transport diners simultaneously through space and time to the Beirut of the 1950s.
Started by four cousins, Anna, Ed, Oliver and Will Templeton, Mile High is unashamedly gimmicky – diners are provided with a passport and boarding card on arrival, and ushered in the first class lounge where they are served cocktails by staff dressed as air stewards and stewardesses.
“Mile High is the result of a conversation we had on the way back from France last autumn,” explains director Anna Templeton in an email interview, “on why modern air travel is such a Pan in the Am, particularly the low-cost, short-haul variety. What happened to the swagger and sophistication of the ’50s and ’60s, when getting there was half the fun?
“So we thought we’d try and recreate the glory days of commercial aviation as a pop-up restaurant,” she continues, “flying to different foodie destinations housed in secret locations across West London.”
Having enjoyed a cocktail in the “departure lounge” and completed the virtual flight, diners arrive at their destination for the evening – which is Beirut this month.
“There are few cities in the world that evoke the romance and mystique of Beirut,” enthuses Templeton. “A lot of places have claimed the ‘Paris of the ...’ moniker ... but with its ancient origins and its fascinating mix of French, Arabic and Ottoman influences, Beirut is most definitely a metropolis that lives up to its grandiose billing.
“When we start[ed] shaping the Mile High concept, Beirut was the first destination on our list,” she continues. “We thought it would give us a real opportunity to do something a little different and play with people’s expectations. Not just with the decor but with the food as well.”
The restaurant’s “ Beirut inspired” menu, concocted by chef Oliver Templeton, kicks off with a Lebanese-inspired cocktail in the “departure lounge,” a Jallab martini, made up of vodka, Jallab and lemon juice garnished with pine nuts.
The food is a similar fusion of East and West – most of the ingredients are likely to be familiar to Lebanese diners, but probably not in these combinations. “Our menu is best described as ‘Lebanese-inspired,’” says Templeton. “Ollie has put his own creative twist on traditional Levantine cuisine.”
A starter of smoked labneh, sour cherry, broad bean and asparagus salad with crisp bread is followed by a course of grilled squid, green pea and salsify with braised celery, lemon and chili, while the main course consists of roasted lamb belly, fondant potato, garlic and zaatar pureé with a tomato and almond salad. A dessert of rose and pomegranate jelly with cardamom custard and a biscuit tops off this litany of Lebanese favorites with a twist.
Wine from Chateau Musar and Arak Touma imported from Lebanon complete the package, bringing a tiny slice of the Levant to London.
The team decided to create their version of Beirut 60 years ago, rather than today, thanks to a film. “When we were researching Destination Beirut,” Templeton explains, “we stumbled upon a wonderful short film from the early ’60s by the broadcaster Harold Baim, promoting tourism in Lebanon.
Peppered with witty little gems like ‘In the markets, or souks, it’s all on display. Yours for the asking, providing you pay,’” she continues, “the travelogue showcases Beirut in its heyday – chic, sophisticated and effortlessly cool. If we could recreate even just a little piece of this belle époque for our diners we figured we’d be on to a winner.”
With colorful woven runners on the wooden tables, baskets of lemons, pomegranates and other Mediterranean fruit scattered artistically about the room and ornate 1950s mirrors and gilt-framed embroidery on the walls, this month’s setup evokes a vanished era, hinting at a Beirut Lebanon’s younger generation never knew.
“We’ve had a lot of fun creating the Beirut of our imaginations,” says Templeton, “aided by period photos, our old friend Harold Baim and countless trips to our favorite Lebanese restaurants ... but we’ve also been lucky enough to have very enthusiastic Lebanese friends who have helped us add those little flourishes of authenticity to the experience.
“Ollie’s menu has proved very popular,” she adds. “One excitable lady claimed she would like to bathe in a tub of his cardamom custard.
“Quite a few of our guests have spent time in Beirut, and with the exception of one gentleman who was disappointed we weren’t serving arak with the meal, they all seem to have taken to our affectionate reimagining of the city and its cuisine.”
Mile High will be bringing a slice of Beirut to London this month until May 11. Two further destinations are lined up for 2013 – Sicily in June and Mozambique in September. To find out more about the restaurant visit www.dinemilehigh.com.