With a history steeped in divine dishes and warm hospitality, the food of Lebanon arrives in Bali on a floating cushion of love, light and luxurious comfort, writes Sarah Douglas. Photos: Lucky 8.
LOCATED above street level in a building designed to house a chic new apartment complex with guest rooms, studios and a roof terrace, Al Diwan is a very personal statement and one gets the feeling it’s a trip down memory lane for owner Amed, a long-time Bali expat.
“I left Lebanon when I was six, grew up in Africa and then moved to France,” he says. “In Paris there are hundreds of Lebanese restaurants. My favourite is located opposite the George V Hotel and this restaurant is named after it. It was my favourite because the food they served was in the style of Southern Lebanon, where the spices are a bit stronger, the perfume is more potent,’ he explains.
Al Diwan’s décor is bordering on the surreal. Part luxurious living room in a well-appointed Arab home, part VIP airport lounge. Decorated with lush velvets, sparkling curtains, cut glass, mirrors and floating fabric-covered wall details. With windows looking over the street scene in Petitenget and across to the W Resort, it floats above the busy street below.
The food is where the story comes together. With a Lebanese chef, spices imported from the Middle-East and a host of house-made delicacies, from the yoghurt and labne, to the dips and the spectacular falafel to the Lebanese breads, each bite tastes wonderfully authentic.
Reading through the menu transports you immediately to a more exotic place. For the novice it can be quite a mouthful but thankfully the translations are beneath. Try wrapping your mouth around ‘moutabal batinjan’ (smoked eggplant dip), ‘warak enab bezit’(grape leaves stuffed with rice), or ‘juwaneh bel kozbara’ (chicken wings baked with garlic and lemon juice). It’s like meandering around a culinary kazbah.
A smoke and mirrors bar is located at the front (although this is a non-smoking restaurant, owing to the air-conditioned confines, however there’s a smoking area outside the door). Slipping in for a quiet one seems entirely appropriate.
To sample a few dishes, we ordered Lebanese style with a mixed mezza to start. The array of dishes included some balila, batata harra, falafel, rakayik jeben and fatayer sabanik. What actually appeared was beautiful small plates loaded with garlicky chickpeas dressed in olive oil; little pastries stuffed with spinach and scented cheese cigars; the most spectacular falafel I’ve possibly ever eaten, fresh and crisp on the outside and soft and scented inside, with a tahini dip; and potatoes roasted with garlic and lemon.
A fatoush salad was served alongside. The Lebanese love their vegetables and Amed explains that fresh produce is delivered every morning and remains untouched, washed or cut until the order arrives. The vibrancy of the vegetables is in evidence here and the fatoush salad was crisp, bright and flavoured with fresh herbs with crisp croutons on top. Delicious.
We then went the meat lane with a mixed grill platter, also very traditional. The scent of the garlicky grill is irresistible and the grill for one was plenty for two of us. Lamb is served as kebabs, lahme mishweyeh, and minced lamb on skewers, kafta, alongside a chicken shish tawouk, or kebabs. All served with a parsley and onion salad and a garlic dipping sauce. The meat was flavourful, slightly charred with the perfume of souks and sidewalk grills.
A little chat with the Lebanese-born chef, Hassan (we spent a little time learning to pronounce it), is a glimpse of the passion project here as he explains how many of the recipes originated in his grandmother’s kitchen. My dining partner went mad for the pickled turnips, which Hassan explains he pickles by the kilo, together with his beetroot. Who knew those little pink battons could inspire such rapture?
Settling in to our extravagant velvet-covered armchairs to have a chat with Amed and linger over memories of Lebanon, the world and Middle Eastern food was a chance to further indulge in the colours and flavours of the region.
The meal ends with two beautiful hot pillows of fried goodness filled with sweetened cheese, slathered with pistachios, rosewater and honey. A fireworks display at W filled our view and the low lights and Arab music encouraged us to linger in this exotic bubble for a little while longer. Al Diwan is an experience that immerses you in the culture as well as the traditions of a proud country whose culinary influence can be felt in many of the world’s capitols, and now right here in the heart of Seminyak.