by Alice Levitt
1238 MacKay Street, Montréal, Québec
It's not really a garage, more of a basement, though one with a big window letting in plenty of light. Beirut, though, is entirely accurate to describe this cozy restaurant, decorated with historic photos of the Lebanese capital.
When most of us think Lebanese food and Montréal, fast-food names such as Basha and Amir come to mind. Garage Beirut, located near Montréal's "Concordia ghetto" may have a similar menu, but the handcrafted food has little in common with such chains. Canning jars stuffed with house-pickled turnips fill one corner shelf to declare the difference, too.
For a broad overview, we ordered the $22 mixed grill, which the menu said included five brochettes and grilled vegetables. We asked for a $5 order of hummus, but were told it was already included with the dish.
The puréed chickpea dip was nutty and fabulously creamy. Decorated with sprinkles of paprika and filled with viscous olive oil, the flavor leaned more toward the umami than the earthy-but-tangy hummus I prefer. Nonetheless, the cumin-scented dip was a delight that I couldn't stop eating off the fresh, chewy pita that came with it.
For $4, we sprang for one additional mezze from the
A mix of Lebanese cheeses including uncharacteristically smooth feta and my beloved, mozzarella-like akkawi filled phyllo rolls. The combination of sour goatiness from the feta and the salty chewiness of the akkawi was simply irresistible. Fresh parsley added a not unwelcome hint of healthy vegetable matter to the decadent combination.
And they were fried ultra-crisp. What more could I ask for?
How about a giant plate of meat?
The whole glorious pile rested on top of a pita covered in a mildly spicy tomato and onion sauce. Sweet grilled tomatoes came on the side, too, fairly bursting with flavor. There were pickled turnips, made Day-Glo pink with beet juice, and cured okra, as well. Both remained crisp, far from the soggy, store-bought versions I'm used to.
The two ground-meat kebabs at right might look like the same thing, but they're not. The kabab was like the meat equivalent of baklava, flavored with honey and cinnamon. Despite the dessert-y ingredients, the lamb was only subtly sweet, more aromatic than anything.
Its fraternal twin, the kafta, was very slightly tart and flavored with fresh parsley and minced onions. Both were crisp on the outside but not at all dry inside, as such skewered meats often are.
The beef cubes were cooked medium well, but were also tender and moist. They were garlicky on their own, but even better wrapped in a bit of pita and dipped in the thick, white garlic paste served on the side.
The shish taouk was the best of all. Perhaps that's why we received two skewers of it. We appreciated having extra servings of the juicy, lightly charred chunks of white meat.
We didn't have room for the kenafeh (a cheesecake-like dessert), which has garnered praise from some of Montréal's top food critics, but the eminently satisfying meal was enough to bolster us against the below-zero weather we encountered outside the oasis that is Garage Beirut.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.