Lebanese Food and Wine: A Match Made in Heaven
by Susan Montgomery
Think garlic, olive oil, herbs and lemon juice. These are key ingredients in most Lebanese dishes, as our group of food and wine writers discovered during a recent special dinner at Open Sesame in Los Angeles. Ali Kobeissi is the restaurant’s enterprising founder and chef. He also owns two other restaurants of the same name in Long Beach. The dishes we savored were nicely paired with a variety of Lebanese wines presented to us by two knowledgeable wine distributors. The wines they shared were generally light, refreshing, food friendly, and meant for early consumption.
Most of us were not familiar with Lebanon as a wine region and so we were eager to taste the area’s wines. We learned that the country has about 40 wineries producing more than 7 million bottles each year. The two wineries represented at our tasting were Chateau Musar and IXSIR Winery. Chateau Musar, the first winery in Lebanon to earn organic certification, has vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, which sits between two mountain ranges, and is an area that has produced wines for more than 6,000 years. At more than 3000 feet above sea level, the lush Bekaa Valley is sunny most of the time with cool winters and hot summers, making it perfect for thriving vineyards. IXSIR also has vineyards in the Bekaa Valley with winemaking and aging taking place in a central valley. The name “IXSIR” originated with the Arabic word for “Elixir” and emphasizes the winery’s focus on high quality, refreshing wines.
Our tasting started with variety of tantalizing small dishes, including one of Open Seasame’s most popular—crispy Fried Potatoes that had been sautéed with cilantro, garlic, roasted chili and lemon juice. One of my favorite dishes was Fried Cauliflower with onion and tomato, served with tahini sauce topped with sautéed pine nuts and almonds. We also enjoyed Fattoush, a traditional Lebanese peasant salad, made of Romaine lettuce, tomato, cucumber, green onions, parsley, radish, bell pepper, fresh mint, and toasted pita croutons tossed with a light vinaigrette dressing.
Also, of course, we were served a Mediterranean favorite, Tabouleh, featuring bulgar, green onion, parsley, mint, spices, and olive oil with fresh lemon juice. Kibbi, another traditional Lebanese appetizer, is a shell of ground beef and bulgar filled with roasted pine nuts, caramelized onions, ground beef and herbs, served with tasty wild cucumber pickles, tomato, lettuce and a yogurt dip. The combinations of flavors in all these dishes were unique to my palate, delicious and refreshing.
We enjoyed these appetizers with two wonderful white wines. Altitudes IXSIR Blanc 2012, a golden blend of Muscat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, was fresh, floral and softly fruity, a nice counterbalance to the dishes accented with olive oil and lemon juice. At $12 to $20 a bottle retail, this is a wine that I would happily buy in quantity for dinner parties. We also loved Chateau Musar Jeune 2012, a very different white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay and Vermentino. It was crisp with intense citrus flavors and especially enhanced the spicy dishes we tasted—and is a good buy at about $20 a bottle.
One of those spicy dishes was Grilled Shrimp smothered in a delectable, roasted tomato chili sauce with garlic and cilantro, served with a lime. Other delicious samplings of main courses included: Chicken Tawook, cubes of marinated, charbroiled chicken breast served with garlic and wild cucumber pickles; Beef Shawarma, flavorful top round of thinly sliced beef that had been marinated in vinegar, lemon, spices, and onions; an absolutely melt-in-your-mouth, charbroiled Lamb Chop that had marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and garlic; and a traditional fish dish called Loukoz—charbroiled Branzino, served with cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, capers, thyme, arugula and olives.
These heavier main course dishes were accompanied by three nicely paired red wines. IXSIR Grande Reserva Rouge 2010 is a rich Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon blend which is mellow but complex with delicious berry fruitiness and spice and is nicely priced at $23 to $32. It went especially well with the Beef Shawarma. The Altitudes IXSIR Rouge 2010, a lively blend of Cab Sauvignon, Caladoc, Syrah and Tempranillo, has a deep cherry color, nice acidity, and herbal and berry tastes. This wine is food friendly, going especially well with the lamb and fish. Finally, my favorite wine of the evening was another red blend, Chateau Musar 2003, an earthy combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Cinsault, bright cherry in color, fruity, spicy, full bodied and full of acidity. This wine comes from very old vines and is reasonably priced for its outstanding quality at about $35.
We were glad to be introduced to these excellent Lebanese wine. We found them to be really delightful and, while they went well with the wonderful Lebanese food we sampled, they would go with so many other cuisines because of their mellow, refreshing qualities. With all the turmoil in Lebanon throughout the years, it is surprising and fortunate that so many old vines have survived and that such great wines are being produced. It is also fortunate that these wines are widely available throughout the United States in both retail outlets and restaurants.
And of course, our meal would not be complete without Pistachio Baklava, which we enjoyed with dark, strong coffee, savory orange blossom tea with fresh mint, and the lingering remnants of the special red wines. It was an evening we would long remember. Next we plan to try Open Sesame in Long Beach.
Photos by Todd Montgomery and Allan Kissam.