Work trips aren’t always fun. But when the trip involves eating and researching with Wassef and Racha Haroun, co-owners of Mamnoon, I have to admit that it sounds pretty damn awesome.
Last month, chefs Carrie Mashaney (Mamnoon) and Jason Stratton (the Harouns’ MBar) spent a week with the couple touring—and, more importantly, tasting their way across—Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The trip was designed as an opportunity for the head chefs to become further familiarized with the authentic flavors of the Middle East: a tight schedule that included a trip to a tahini factory, tours through markets examining everything from grape leaves to za’atar, and many meals out at restaurants that inspired the chefs to revamp spring menus. “There’s only so far research alone can take you,” Stratton says. “We had some really fantastic opportunities to interact with people who were excited to show what Lebanese cuisine and culture was all about.”
Stratton and Mashaney talked of the restaurant scene there, where most places are preparing the same dishes very traditionally and a few chef-driven spots are choosing to push the envelope a bit. They loved dinner at Al-Sultan Brahim, an expansive seafood restaurant for more than 50 years with “a scene like an American steakhouse,” Stratton says. There, they found tried-and-true recipes for classic Lebanese dishes, but with a reverence paid to Beirut’s coastal position and abundance of seafood. In that way, it’s hard to ignore its similarities to the Pacific Northwest. Stratton says his menu at MBar already heavily features seafood, and Mashaney is open to experimenting more with it at Mamnoon.
At another restaurant, Baron, they found a young chef with an eye for experimentation. The modern décor and menu could be at home in any American food city like New York or Seattle. The open kitchen was the chef’s idea to aid transparency in preparation—an obvious choice here, but an innovative one there. Mashaney says it was reaffirming: “Oh, we’re doing something right!”
Both chefs pointed out that, like Italy and France, the cuisine of Lebanon has certain dishes that are protected—you don’t need to mess with something that’s perfect as it is. This balance of old and new is something that comes with experience, both in cooking and tasting. “Sometimes I just don’t know how far I can push it, what I can get away with,” Mashaney says, of experimenting with and refining very classic Lebanese dishes. “It’s about learning where you can go—but sometimes knowing it’s not necessary to fuss.”
What the restaurant scene in Beirut shared, according to the two, was a sense of anything-goes hospitality we don’t see enough of in Seattle. Meals are meant to be shared and lingered over—the emphasis on the social time spent with friends and family and less about the food. Though this is already a highlight at Mamnoon, Stratton says diners can soon expect a similar “joie de vivre” experience at MBar, with an outdoor grill on the patio and a program he describes as “casual and fun and abundant.”
“I’ve always learned a lot from traveling,” Stratton says. “When you get asked that dorky question, ‘what would you tell a young person getting into this industry?’ I always tell them that whenever you get the chance to travel, do it. A lot of the hows and whys I do this are answered by travel.”
Hey Wassef and Racha, can I come next time?