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Restaurant review: A flavour of the Levant served up at the hidden gem of Beirut in Dundee

The tabouleh dish.
The tabouleh dish.

The link between art and food is a recurring one throughout the ages and, at its most basic level, I always believe if you want to find a good restaurant then you could do far worse than ask an artist.

It’s normally true that artists have an appreciation of food which is instinctive and based on aesthetics which might even inform their own art practice.

Artists tend not to do parochial and they tend not to do naff.

The artists Gilbert and George are famous for never cooking a meal in their own house, instead finding a restaurant they love and going there for years, often several times a day. They even order the same dish, reasoning that eliminating choice from their daily life frees them up to create.

While Gilbert and George tend not to go to fashionable restaurants, many artists do congregate in the same spaces. In London you’ll always find St John filled with a creative gang and when that same crowd go to Edinburgh they gravitate to places like Timberyard, the Little Chartroom or Aurora in Leith.

Dundee doesn’t have anywhere so obviously arty, apart from Jute at DCA which always pulls in a directional crowd and feels buzzy and outward looking. Other places which pass muster with Dundee’s art tribes include Gallery 48 and Rama Thai, both of which operate at price points meaning you don’t need to sell your first masterwork to be able to eat there.

A weekend lunch in Rama Thai proved just how it’s managed to attract such a diverse clientele, including a notably young contingent who appreciate the three-course £9.95 set lunch menu as much as we did.

However, it’s probably true to say that Dundee’s Perth Road has the biggest variety of interesting places to eat in one city street – which is fortuitous because it’s there that Dundee’s award-winning art school resides.


Beirut

A recent meeting with Anita Taylor, dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD), proved not just intellectually stimulating, but also led to the discovery of a small but perfectly formed little gem of a restaurant opposite the college.

It’s just a short walk to this place from the centre of town and I would urge you to try it soon, because it’s quite a find.

Beirut is what I’ve been looking for in Dundee for a long time and I was so thrilled to discover it that I ended up eating there three times in the same week. It’s really that good.

Inside Beirut.

Opened less than a year ago by Saif Shakarchi, Beirut is a simple, unpretentious space that punches well above its weight in the food it delivers. This is authentic Middle

Eastern food that’s fresh, vibrant and a total delight.

This weekend would be an ideal time to try the food here because DJCAD’s fantastic degree show opens today and runs until May 29. This will be the first in-person degree show of work from the art, design and architecture faculties, celebrating the achievements of more than 350 students. I’ve bought great work from this show over the years and it’s wonderful to see it return after two years online.

Seating outside.

I would recommend a day of art starting off with Douglas Gordon’s fantastic show at DCA, then a visit to the DJCAD degree show (booking is necessary), interspersed with a meal in Beirut.

Whenever people ask me about my favourite cuisine, I always find it hard to answer because so much depends on variables like the time of year, the time of day, and your mood.

But food classified as Middle Eastern covers cuisine from so many countries that this all-encompassing term includes so much of what really excites me
about food.

There is a freshness and vibrancy to these dishes that can’t fail to excite and the use of herbs and spices, so synonymous with much of this cooking, lifts it into another realm.


The food

The menu here is short but everything I tried over the course of three visits was delicious. It’s composed of six cold meze, six hot meze, four wraps and nine main courses. An evening special offers 12 meze and mixed meshwi for £21.95 per person, which seems like a very good deal for food of this quality. It’s unlicensed but you can bring your own booze.

A basic test of a place like this is how fresh everything appears, because many of these dishes certainly don’t benefit from sitting around.

A bowl of tabbouleh (£5.95) was so wonderfully assertively flavoured that I could have eaten it three times over and still wanted more.

The tabouleh dish.

This is a dish so redolent of sunshine that eating it brought this part of the Perth Road so much closer to the Levant. Indeed, a photo I took that day shows a dish glistening with colour, the deep red of the tomatoes enhancing the vibrant green of the parsley, like little jewels strewn throughout the bowl. A piece of lemon twisted over the top was a perfect visual counterpoint to the green and red beauty, and the lettuce leaves were both ultra-fresh and, as is tradition, used as scoops for the joyful melange of deeply resonant flavour below.

Incidentally, I was interested recently to find a new recipe for tabbûleh in the excellent book Veggiestan by Sally Butcher. This version, claiming to be definitive, uses both cinnamon and Baharat, a seven-spice mix used in a wide range of dishes, particularly in Syria and Iraq – also the birthplace of Beirut’s owner-chef Saif.

I look forward to trying this version at home, and also note from the book that “the real deal tabbûleh is a parsley salad with wheat as an added extra”.

With this explosion of flavour, I drank a fresh mint tea (a bargain at £2.25).

Refreshing mint tea.

I would recommend everything on this menu, although the star of the show for me is probably the hummus chicken shawarma (£7.50), a dish of such joy I’m hankering for it again even as I type this.Served simply, with a pickle and some lemon for balance, this dish was so good I got another portion, plus the lamb equivalent (£7.95) to take home with me for dinner that night.

It’s important to state that everything is home-made here and so the hummus succeeds or fails on the balance of flavours within – here the tahini was just right, not cloying or acrid as it can be in less well-judged versions, and each mouthful was such a perfect enhancement to the spiced chicken that I wolfed it down in minutes.

Murray loved the hummus.

Another huge success came a few days later when I’d been doing weights at the gym and needed to get some healthy, low-fat, high-protein ballast in my body quickly. This came in the form of the most perfectly light falafel you’ve ever tasted (£7.95, but that’s for a big platter).

Here seven fluffy, intensely-flavoured falafel come with a spicy home-made sauce of great flair, an equally perfectly-balanced tahini sauce, salad, pickles, hot flatbread and a portion of golden turmeric rice flecked with parsley. This was freshness on a plate and tasted so delicious – the falafel were definitely the best I’ve ever tasted in my long life.

The falafel at Beirut.

By now you’ve probably realised I love this place, so a third visit to try the halloumi (£5.95) was really just to celebrate the joy of this simple, fantastic food and to see how halloumi, so often cooked and presented so it
resembles rubber sealant, might be transformed here.

Needless to say it was great, the salty and relatively low-calorie cheese perfectly cooked and served as golden brown nuggets of crispness. With pickles to cut through the richness of the cheese and an amazing home-made chilli sauce to accompany it, this was another delight.

I note also in Veggiestan a quote from Sidqui Effendi about halloumi which advises “put a portion of cheese in silver paper. Wrap it up and put it over a fire. When the paper starts to glow the cheese is ready to eat and deliciously creamy… this is good food that enhances sex for married men”. Really, who knew halloumi had such power?

The verdict

Dundee has quite a few Middle Eastern restaurants, most of them pretty good. But what’s been lacking is somewhere casual enough to just drop into, yet authentic enough to feel like you’re treating yourself.

I happened to go the first three times by myself because this is the kind of food I like to eat on a whim, and it’s perfect for a quick lunch when I don’t always want to book and I don’t always want the faff of a restaurant experience.

Of course, Beirut is indeed a restaurant but it’s got a casual vibe which feels relaxed enough to drop into at any time of day.

Every time I’ve been there’s been a procession of students from over the road, together with locals who were turned on to this gem before me. It feels a bit like a secret you want to keep.

Beirut’s decor is simple yet “bonkers” as Murray explains.

The decor is simple, a bit quietly bonkers (a skateboard, a guitar, a radio, a representation of an old-school TV and a sign saying “good vibes only” decorate one wall) and the whole place just feels like what it is – a room to celebrate great home-made food in.

Its proximity to the art college seems to have already garnered a loyal following of students and lecturers but Beirut deserves to have a far wider
audience than that, because this is
a real find.

This weekend the area around Beirut will be bustling with the activity of the degree show, a really special time in Dundee’s vibrant cultural life. I’m excited that you can now get equally vibrant, authentic food mere steps away from the city’s brilliant art school.

Congratulations to Saif Shakarchi for delivering his authentic vision with such great skill and aplomb.

A joy.


Information

Address: Beirut, 142 Perth Road, Dundee DD1 4JW

T: 01382 760776

Price: Meze from £5.50, wraps from £7.95, mains from £7.95

Scores: 

  • Food: 5/5
  • Service: 5/5
  • Surroundings: 5/5

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