I didn’t know Lebanon was moody. Gibran was quite romantic. And Shakira, well. . . The country’s history is marked by rollercoaster periods of political stability, turmoil and prosperity. Still, that doesn’t explain the markedly dark interiors of Beqaa — so named after the country’s vibrant, most important farming region. My pupils fully dilated and the initial surprise at the speakeasy vibe (for a restaurant) fading into the muted atmosphere, I noted the stark grey(?) walls and the sole decorative element in the form of wrought-iron grilles separating the stylish open kitchen and bar from the rest of the restaurant. The floors and tables were done up in matching, unidirectional parquetry. I sniffed the table surface for cedar, Lebanon’s national tree and emblem, but the topcoat didn’t allow a clue. Black pendants cast warm spots onto the surfaces. Then I got it. Highlighting. Well-deserved spotlights as I learned, shortly.
We started with some mezzes, similar to the Spanish tapas and the Italian antipasto, per maître’s recommendation. Baba Ganoush, traditionally a char-grilled eggplant, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic — the menu listing only eggplant, smoked paprika and tahini; all pureed into an emulsion like herbed cream. Their other bestseller, the Mouhamarra, a blend of toasted walnuts and fire-roasted peppers, was unexpectedly mellow with the nutty flavor masking the pepper’s taste. These were served with a condiment trio of Lebanese staples: Tahini – sesame paste, Toum – garlic sauce and a mild Chili sauce. These dips were served with Pita Crackers, looking a lot like Lavosh–thin flatbread crisps, a rather lightweight change from the pita wedges and roti that I’m used to having with my Greek and Indian.
The Za’atar Salad followed shortly. Medium tomatoes in thick wedges mixed with crispy, fresh cucumber met Manouri Cheese — a creamier, less-salty by-product of Feta, in a wonderful embrace with ribbons of caramelized onions.
Pops winced and muttered that the Iced Tea was bitter. It was an unusually dark brew which gave the impression of some exotic, traditional Lebanese tea. Without hesitation, the waiter popped my balloon by declaring its brand: Lipton. Hahaha. I did appreciate being given the choice not to edge closer to Type II Diabetes with sugar syrup served on the side. A win for the Green Movement came about my discovery that the glassware was cut and repurposed wine bottles. Genius!
La Emmanuela immediately scoffed at the Crispy Fried Parrot Fish when I told her it’s the very Bisaya’, Molmol. Isda’s Bato. The alternative Samkeh Harra (Leb.), Sea Bass, aka Grouper, or . . . Kugtong, pegged at more than thrice the price of the former helped her make the more modest choice. True enough, the fish was very crispy, seasoned lightly with black pepper and the very organic texture of rock salt, with the insides cooked to a fish-flaky perfection.
The Shish Taouk, a dead ringer for the Indian Chicken Tandoori in taste and its preparation in a yogurt and garlic marinade, utilizes only the white meat and is fiery red from what I assumed to be a red saffron rub with the earthy Lebanese all-spice blend. The entire kabob, sans skewer, rests on a bed of Tabbouleh – a lively, diced parsley salad with burghul and tomato with a side of medium-cut, crispy fries.
Cousins in Medditerranea, Beqaa’s dishes were not very much unlike Greek with striking similarities in preparations but with rather less aggressive flavors–the spices only hinting at heat, the sours registering slight tangs and the herbs quite mellow. The copious amounts of garlic used was toned down with mincing and olive oil. The use of olive oil was also limited to a good coating versus the Grecian bath.
Service was exceptionally good in the standard of joints by The Abaca Group. Empty dishes quickly disappeared as if by magic. The wait staff flitted about unobtrusively, almost anticipating their patrons next need. Each one came well-versed with the menu.
Dished out and pushed back from the table, the maitre’d offered dessert. Stuffed, we had to decline. You know? Hips don’t lie.
Note to the ignorant, the reference above is to Shakira’s Lebanese paternal lineage and the fact that too much good food, like at Beqaa’s for example, may contribute to pelvic areas of panoramic arrangements.
Beqaa is located at the second floor of the Design Center of Cebu, P.Remedios St. corner A.S. Fortuna Avenue, Cebu City