In an oasis of Middle-Eastern chic in a shopping mall, you can sample an interesting range of Lebanese cuisine. Joseph Sabeh Afaki tells TAN BEE HONG more about the foods of his country
IT was a bad case of craving for the tastes of his growing up years that prompted Joseph Sabeh Afaki to open Al-Amar, that swanky Lebanese restaurant on the sixth floor of Pavilion Kuala Lumpur.
Three years of going without home food proved impossibly long, so last year, the good-looking investment banker from Beirut decided he´d open a restaurant so that he could share the dining experience of his homeland with Klang Valley folk. And now, he eats there everyday.
“Most restaurants would bring in a Lebanese chef for a few months to teach local cooks who then take over. But as local tastebuds are somewhat different, these cooks tend to inject their own preferences into the food,” says Sabeh Afaki, 26, who is half Lebanese and half Italian.
He didn´t want that happening at Al-Amar, so he has three full-time Lebanese chefs in the kitchen dishing up all his favourites and more.
“Food is so much a part of our culture. We take our time over our meals and we love eating out,” he says. “Sometimes, lunch can be as long as five to six hours and we´d have a whole table laden with food, wine, beer and arak.”
Al-Amar (meaning The Moon) has the advantage of open glass windows with gossamer curtains and a long balcony with seating offering fabulous views of Jalan Bukit Bintang. This section is popular with customers who relax on the deep sofa seats with drinks and share the shisha water pipe. Facing the balcony is the bar area, well stocked with Lebanese Kefraya wines, Lebanese Almazar beer and that traditional arak.
The menu is divided into cold and hot mezzes that represent the core of Lebanese cuisine, salads, breads, soups, grills, chawarma and manakich (pastries with various toppings). Mezzes are a little like tapas and consists of a variety of small dishes of different flavours, textures and aromas.
For big groups, Sabeh Afaki recommends ordering all the mezzes. Isn´t that a lot of food? He laughs and pats his belly. “I can eat them all. Even if you can´t, you should order at least two from each section.”
Prices for mezze start from RM16. Cheese rolls are spectacular, with a slightly salty edge, and there are all kinds of fried snacks like sambousik (beef patties) and fatayer stuffed with spinach, tomato and onions. Warak Enab are vine leaves stuffed with rice flavoured with the citrusy aroma and piquancy of lemon. There´s fried chicken liver with concentrated pomegranate sauce, spicy lamb sausages, steamed kidney beans with olive oil and minced beef stuffed in pinenut dough.
With such a range of exotic flavours, the Fattoush salad, albeit refreshing, tastes a little ordinary. The light salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, radish and mint, is topped with crisps and dressed with olive oil, lemon and black pepper.
We break freshly-baked puffy Lebanese bread and use them like spoons to scoop up Moutabal (mashed eggplant with tahina and lemon) and Mommos (mashed chickpeas with tahina and lemon).
“We make the breads here. The commercial stuff is not good,” he says. It´s so amusing that Sabeh Afaki does use commercial bread but only to line plates for grilled meats (from RM18) and as a cover to keep them warm.
We are having a mixed platter with Tawouk (grilled chicken breasts), Kafta (minced lamb skewer) and grilled chicken leg. Sabeh Afaki shows us to eat these with a homemade garlic mayonnaise. Lovely as it isn´t too pungent in flavour.
The bread cover isn´t too appetising but that which lines the plate is rather tasty as it has soaked up the juices from the grilled meat.
But what really grabs my tastebuds is Kebbeh Nayyeh (RM32). Sounds like a simple dish of raw minced lamb mixed with ground wheat but it has superb taste and texture. To eat, Sabeh Afaki adds a dab of the garlic mayonnaise, a pinch of salt and pepper and spreads the raw lamb on a piece of bread. I really have to come back again for more.
Chicken Kabbseh (RM38) is a huge portion of chicken breast served with flavoured basmati rice and a tomato-based sauce heavily flavoured with cumin, dried coriander, lemon and Seven Spices, a special pre-combined spice mix from Lebanon. The rice has a strong scent of cardamom.
“The Seven Spices mix is imported. We have to import a lot of items from Lebanon like sumac, the wines and arak. This is important if we want to keep the taste authentic. Even the chickpeas are imported as the ones available here are somewhat different,” says Sabeh Afaki.
The Kabbseh is a huge portion. “The Lebanese always have big portions. We do the same as we want customers to have the total Lebanese experience here,” he says.
Does he eat like this all the time at home? “Often,” he replies. “Homestyle dishes are found in our menu as daily special for lunch. We have a range of dishes that are served as mains.”
The home-style menus are available for lunch daily from Mondays to Saturday.
End your meal with Lebanese coffee (RM7) and dessert. We had Karicheh Bi Assal (RM18) a dish of milk curds with honey. As for coffee, this sinfully-midnight brew is served in dainty expresso cups. It´s strong brew and made only when ordered. “Lebanese coffee beans are over-roasted to get that lovely aroma,” says Sabeh Afaki.
Al-Amar is open daily from 10am to 1am. Don´t worry if the mall is closed as there´s a direct lift to the sixth floor. Sabeh Afaki plans to open a Lebanese deli soon at KL Plaza.
[New Sunday Times]