BEIRUT: It’s a pattern more commonly found warming the legs of elderly people in nursing homes or bouncing raucously against the pale knees of reeling men in the Outer Hebrides, but somehow the bold wall-to-wall tartan carpeting at the Vendome Hotel’s revamped Sydney’s restaurant works. Dominated by a bright, almost coke-can red, the carpet is the first thing newcomers and returnees to the 13th-floor rooftop institution will notice. It runs through the venue’s interior rooms and right up to the darkened corner where the original Sydney’s bar, a mainstay of post-Civil War Beirut, remains unchanged.
Somewhat incongruous with the current beating sunshine, the floor covering screams winter warmth. Indeed, it takes little to imagine cozying up in one of Sydney’s leather armchairs as rain pounds against the glass of the restaurant’s conservatory area.
Fortunately, perhaps, the conservatory has been spared the tartan. With chairs covered in jaunty white-and-blue damask, the atmosphere – more French seaside than medieval Scottish castle – is completely different.
Nonetheless it is absolutely appropriate to the conservatory’s perch above the yawning Mediterranean at Ain al-Mreisseh. When winter hits, however, patrons may well long for precisely those old leg-warming tartan blankets to rectify the ambiance.
During Sydney’s three months of closure this summer season the interior wasn’t the only thing made over. The venue, named for its first manager, reopened at the beginning of September with a brand new menu too.
I sampled it at lunchtime Friday, sitting in a tartan-carpeted alcove to the left of the conservatory with a view over the sea. All the same, I longed to be dining in the glass-walled room next door.
The menu, served at both lunch and dinner, offers up a range of bistro plates with ample and location-appropriate seafood options – although I doubt many, if any, of them were sourced in the restaurant’s nearby waters.
Having hemmed and hawed between the Alaskan crab and smoked salmon starters, I settled on an endive Roquefort salad followed, with great enthusiasm, by an item rarely seen on a Beirut menu: a lobster burger.
When the salad appeared, I instantly wished I’d chosen something else. Too many leaves and not nearly enough cheese was my initial impression. But lurking beneath red and green endive and shavings of pear were more than adequate chucks of delicious Roquefort. Each time I thought I’d polished off the last nugget of creamy blue cheese, another appeared.
Next to me, my dining companion ooh-ed and ahh-ed over what I thought looked like a rather boring goat cheese salad. You know the formula: three circles of bread topped with three wheels of cheese presented next to a mix of greens. Eventually I tried one of the cheese circles: smooth, tangy and topped with an interesting half-teaspoon of something nutty and sweet.
Verdict: Executive chef Georges Mansour creates salads that are much more than they look.
We also tried the white fish cakes from the “appetizers for sharing” menu. They were rubbery – difficult to slice with a regular knife and chewy to ingest. The only thing that redeemed them was the wasabi sauce they came with.
As for the lobster burger, we both discarded the top half of its floury white bun after just one bite. It was just too much bread for the delicate lobster, which was tossed in old bay mayonnaise that I declared the perfect marriage of zest and spice. My dining companion, however, deemed it “too spicy” after several mouthfuls.
The burger came with pickled vegetables (which I ignored) and french fries (which were good but nothing to write home about).
I felt it my duty to sample the Japanese-grown Tajima wagyu beef Sydney’s now serves, so I asked for a taste. Mansour presented a sirloin steak, cooked to medium-rare perfection. Thick, tender and juicy, it was hands down the best meat I’ve ever eaten in Lebanon.
Before dessert, Mansour eagerly brought me back to the kitchen to show off the marbling in the raw beef cuts.
Pastry chef Pierre Abi Haila recommended the creme brulee tartlet for dessert, but I wanted the lemon ricotta cake, a menu item Pierre described as “risky” because the texture isn’t to everyone’s liking.
For me it was a winner: dense and lemony, but neither bitter nor sweet. It was presented next to a scoop of refreshing homemade lemon sorbet.
My dining companion ordered the recommended dessert, which came with three layers: a biscuit base, the creme center and a grid of hardened caramel on top. Topped with fresh berries, it was a carnival of textures and flavors.
When the eating was done, we sat back and watched the sea with the curving arm of Lebanon’s northern coast against it. Somehow I feel it wouldn’t matter if the carpet here was a hot pink horror or a moth-eaten mess, we’d still ascend to the Vendome’s 13th to see this.