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The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Food & Drink -

ew would dis­pute Hong Kong’s sta­tus as a culi­nary melt­ing pot – a stroll through Soho is like trav­el­ling around the world with your taste buds. Nev­er­the­less, the Mid­dle Eastern din­ing scene has not taken off in the cap­i­tal as much as the other me­trop­o­lises world­wide such as New York and Lon­don. In fact, the re­gion’s cui­sine is of­ten misiden­ti­fied as sim­ply Mediter­ranean food, or is gen­er­alised with the more no­table dishes such as ke­babs, hum­mus and grilled meats.

With Mid­dle Eastern cuisines’ pop­u­lar­ity sky­rock­et­ing and din­ers with ad­ven­tur­ous palates con­tinue seek­ing new flavours, it’s time for Hong Kong to re­think the cui­sine, which has been un­der­rated in the city for years.

There’s some­thing unique about Mid­dle Eastern food – it comes with a story. Chef Jad Youssef’s culi­nary con­cept for ex­am­ple, is deeply in­ter­twined with fam­ily tra­di­tions and child­hood mem­o­ries “I’ve al­ways adored my mum’s kitchen in our Beirut home. My mother is a pas­sion­ate cook and thanks to her culi­nary open-mind­ed­ness and her un­scripted in­ven­tions in the kitchen, I fell in love with cre­ative cook­ing,” says the Ex­ec­u­tive Chef of Mai­son Libanaise.

The Le­banese chef grew up help­ing his mother pre­par­ing home-cooked feasts and as­sist­ing his fa­ther at work in his pop­u­lar pas­try shop in the neigh­bour­hood. “Dad’s pas­try shop was al­ways warm with freshly baked pas­tries, trays of baklava and knefe. He would be up work­ing from 5am to get the knefe ready for the morn­ing rush. Neigh­bours would drop by on their way to work for break­fast, cof­fee and a chat,” re­calls Youssef.

The hearty ex­e­cu­tion of food and the con­nec­tion with cus­tomers re­main as the core of the Le­banese chef’s phi­los­o­phy. “The fra­grant aro­mas of rose and or­ange blos­som wa­ter that clouded the bak­ery reached all the way to the end of the street, which I think is prob­a­bly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble in the in­dus­tri­alised West now. Cus­tomers loved the old-style pas­try shop in­te­rior and the daily hus­tle and bus­tle of Dad’s lo­cal neigh­bour­hood gem.”

Fam­ily din­ners are a pil­lar of life in the Mid­dle East. “Ev­ery Fri­day night, our fam­ily would meet and have din­ner to­gether. The food it­self is im­por­tant, but it’s sec­ondary to the ac­tual idea of eat­ing to­gether,” re­calls chef Asher Gold­stein, Co-found­ing part­ner and Head Chef of Fran­cis. “Even when we have grown up, the tra­di­tion con­tin­ues. Ev­ery Fri­day, one of my sis­ters brings the bread, the other brings a pie and my mum makes the stew. Ev­ery­one brings a dish and we all share the food to­gether.” In many ways, the sense of shar­ing a ca­sual yet warm Mid­dle Eastern meal is the key in­gre­di­ent.

“THE FOOD IT­SELF IS IM­POR­TANT, BUT IT’S SEC­ONDARY TO THE AC­TUAL IDEA OF EAT­ING TO­GETHER." – Chef Asher Gold­stein

Food in the Mid­dle East goes be­yond just sus­te­nance. The idea of eat­ing to­gether is cen­tral to Mid­dle Eastern cul­ture, and many house­holds spend hours, even days, to pre­pare a re­mark­able spread of dishes for fam­ily meals. “I have seven aun­ties, and ev­ery hol­i­day my mum would send me to dif­fer­ent aun­tie’s place for two weeks. Grow­ing up I al­ways used to com­pare their cook­ing skills,” laughs Gold­stein. “They all have Iraqi back­grounds so their cook­ing is full of stew and a lot of carbs. They all fol­low the same fam­ily recipes, which are passed on through gen­er­a­tions.”

While both chefs hailed from the Mid­dle East, they have left foot­prints in other cor­ners of the world. Hav­ing won the hearts and stom­achs of Lon­don­ers with his rus­tic Is­raeli cui­sine and warm ser­vices at Yalla Yalla, a pop­u­lar Le­banese street food restau­rant-chain, Youssef joined the fast-grow­ing Black­sheep Restau­rants in Jan­uary af­ter calling Lon­don home for over a decade.

“Hong Kong had been on my mind for some time, as the cul­ture of the city was fas­ci­nat­ing to me,” points out Youssef. “Le­banese food is one of the most pop­u­lar and fastest grow­ing cuisines in the world but it isn’t as ubiq­ui­tous in Hong Kong as it is in other cities. The idea of be­ing able to de­velop and pop­u­larise the food I love in a culi­nary hub like Hong Kong was hugely ap­peal­ing to me.”

Cur­rently tak­ing the helm of Mai­son Libanaise, the three-storey hip­pie joint along the Soho es­ca­la­tor, Youssef is el­e­vat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of con­vivial meze-style eat­ing by en­sur­ing flavours and nu­tri­tion go hand in hand. “Mid­dle Eastern dishes are full of flavours, thanks to the ar­ray of herbs and spices you’ll find in ev­ery dish. While tech­niques are rel­a­tively sim­ple for Mid­dle Eastern recipes, the in­gre­di­ents lists tend to be long, how­ever more va­ri­ety means more nu­tri­ents,” says Youssef. “I love to cre­ate dishes us­ing spices such as Le­banese five spice, sumac, car­damom and cin­na­mon to add depth and warmth, while pome­gran­ate mo­lasses, seeds and dif­fer­ent nuts add tex­ture and bite.”

Sim­i­lar to his suc­cess­ful restau­rant con­cepts in Lon­don, Youssef wanted au­then­tic­ity at the heart of Mai­son Libanaise. “We’ve re­cently added a few of my favourite dishes that are very typ­i­cal ex­am­ples of the Le­banese cui­sine you’d find all over my home­town of Beirut.” Some of the must-try dishes in­clude Sawda Djej, a com­fort dish that is packed with flavours and nu­tri­ents, thanks to the com­bi­na­tion of the ten­der chicken liv­ers and the fresh gar­lic and pome­gran­ate mo­lasses. In fact, The Guardian and Time Out crowned this dish as one of ‘The Best 100 Dishes in Lon­don’ in 2012.

Arayes, on the other hand, is also a hum­ble crowd pleaser. Take a bite and you will be trans­ported to the bustling streets of the Le­vant re­gion. Think of it as a Mid­dle Eastern sand­wich filled with minced meat, toma­toes, onions, pars­ley and a melody of spices.

The wel­com­ing restau­rant of­fers hearty made-to­order street food for take­away on the ground floor, known as Le Comp­toir. For those who like to dine in, grab a seat at the al fresco space La Bu­vette, where you can en­joy tongue-tin­gling bites amidst vi­brant Moor­ish mo­saic and col­or­ful tiles. In case the rooftop is full, dine on the first floor, although it can be slightly too loud at times.

De­spite the idea of Mid­dle Eastern cui­sine may re­main ex­otic for many lo­cal din­ers, Youssef high­lighted one im­por­tant ele­ment that ties both Chi­nese and Mid­dle Eastern food to­gether. “The fam­ily-style mezze din­ing that I love is not too dis­sim­i­lar to the lo­cal Chi­nese way of eat­ing. In fact, both our cul­tures pre­fer shar­ing lots of smaller dishes so you can try a lot, rather than hav­ing a big plate of one thing as you might in Europe.”

“MID­DLE EASTERN CUI­SINE IS ABUN­DANT AND GEN­ER­OUS. IT’S A WAY OF EAT­ING THAT HAS THE POWER TO CON­NECT PEO­PLE.” – Chef Jad Youssef

Orig­i­nally from Is­rael and a na­tive of Tel Aviv, Gold­stein has over 12 years of culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence un­der his belt. “I was trained in a French cook­ing school in Syd­ney, where I learnt how to make bread, cure meat and make Ital­ian cheese. I did a lot of learn­ing but never tried to ap­ply th­ese tech­niques on Mid­dle Eastern food dur­ing my time there,” points out Gold­stein. “So when we were brain­storm­ing the culi­nary con­cept of Fran­cis, it just came nat­u­rally for me to fo­cus on Tel Aviv cui­sine with Euro­pean in­flu­ences.”

Nes­tled in the boom­ing precinct of St. Fran­cis Street, the new 30-seat restau­rant is the joint con­cept be­tween Gold­stein, vet­eran restau­rant man­ager James Ward and sea­soned som­me­lier Si­mone Sam­muri. The neigh­bour­hood joint, de­spite only hav­ing opened in Wan­chai in Jan­uary, has at­tracted a steady stream of din­ers, who re­turn for the restau­rant’s sim­ple but well-ex­e­cuted dishes and its im­pres­sive wine list.

The chef has gen­er­ously stud­ded his in­gre­di­ent­driven menu with a range of au­then­tic mezzes, which

“THE FOOD IT­SELF IS IM­POR­TANT, BUT IT’S SEC­ONDARY TO THE AC­TUAL IDEA OF EAT­ING TO­GETHER.” – Chef Asher Gold­stein

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