Founded in 1992 in Hong Kong, the chain previously opened a location in Ho Chi Minh City before arriving in Hanoi this year, with one branch about to open on Xuan Dieu and another in Trang Tien Plaza. The latter is a grandiosely chic dining space which fits the mall’s overall aesthetic: the interior designers seem to have had Trinidad James’s All Gold Everything on constant repeat. Wandering through the nearly deserted corridors of luxury shops is an eerie experience. Perhaps that’s why Beirut, on the fifth floor, is often empty. At noon, I was the only diner in the enormous space.
Certainly this is no fault of the design. Stylishly decked out with sleek black chairs and Islamic motifs, the restaurant offers stunning views of Hoan Kiem Lake. The soundtrack, alternating pop music with Middle Eastern crescendos, sets the scene for a trendy dining session.
Mezze, Halloumi and Peanuts
Nor is it the fault of the food. You could make a meal out of the mezze alone, feasting on cold appetisers like hummus (VND128,000) and moutabal (VND128,000), a puree of grilled eggplant with tahini and lemon juice. Gently charred rectangles of halloumi (VND128,000), a salty-sweet goat cheese with a firm texture, are as good as any you’d find in Beirut itself.
Mezze refers to small plates, both warm and cold, that are shared among diners. The concept would seem to be a perfect fit for Vietnam, where dishes are also shared family-style. However, local diners don’t seem to get the concept. A Vietnamese couple sat down next to me and perused the menu for several perplexed minutes before settling on peanuts and beer.
Platters of grilled meat and fish offer a more substantial feed. You can’t go wrong with shish taouk (VND278,000), in which enormous, juicy hunks of grilled chicken are seasoned with lemon juice, garlic and spices and served alongside crisp French fries and grilled vegetables. The plate is intended for one, but with appetisers, it could easily feed two or three.
While the flavours are generally spot on, the presentations are often bizarre. That grilled chicken arrived atop a round of cold pita bread, topped with more slices of pita that had been slathered in mayonnaise. On the side, someone had generously thought to provide more mayonnaise in a little cup, on the off chance that I would run out.
A Way to Go
The staff is friendly and speaks decent English, and the menu offers helpful pictures for those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern fare. Still, there are a few major issues that need to be addressed. In the Middle East, you’re generally served warm, freshly-baked pita — or at least, bread that’s been warmed to a temperature approximate to having recently emerged from the oven. But here, the bread accompanying all the appetisers is cold, as if it’s just been removed from a package and slammed onto a plate. And while the restaurant offers a selection of homemade desserts, such as rice pudding and baklava, they’re not mentioned at all on the menu. The only way I found out about them was by asking the cashier.
An even more serious problem is how difficult it is for an individual diner to eat a reasonably priced meal. While big groups can share a selection of mezze, sampling a few dishes on your own is a costly indulgence. I spent over VND700,000 on just a single mezze item and a plate of grilled chicken. Offering sampler plates geared towards individual diners — similar to the Vietnamese com suat — might attract more customers. I hope that something does, anyway, so that Beirut can stay in business. After that hearty plate of shish taouk, there’s no way I’m going back to street kebabs.
Beirut is on the 5th Floor of Trang Tien Plaza, Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem. Tel: (04) 3763 6666
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals