Beirut Restaurant (West St. Paul, MN)
It's easy to have a terrific meal at Beirut: order a side of their pureed garlic and smear it on everything. It's deceptively called "garlic sauce" on the menu, but it has the consistency of butter and is made almost entirely out of garlic, with some olive oil, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt thrown in. Everything tastes better with garlic sauce; we've even taken to buying tubs to bring home to put on our toast in the morning.
Formerly called Port of Beirut, this restaurant has undergone a recent remodeling. The new restaurant is prettier, quieter, and better laid out with a clean, fresh look to everything. Beirut is very much a family restaurant, yours and theirs.
This is Lebanese home cooking: nothing is over-the-top fantastic, but nothing disappoints. The hummus and baba ghannooj are both fresh and flavorsome. The stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls are some of the best in town. The shawirma -- that's the meat you'll find in gyros -- is a bit dry, but okay. Even the falafel is made well. Remember to eat it immediately after arrives; falafel is best eaten hot hot hot.
All entrees come with your choice of tabouli or house salad. While the tabouli -- a cold salad made up of bulgar wheat, parsley, tomatoes, onions, mint, and seasonings -- is okay, the salad dressing on the house salad is, like the garlic sauce, one of the simply perfect things to eat at Beirut. It's a vinaigrette made with lemon and garlic, fresh and tangy.
Entrees fall into two basic categories: "kabobs" and "everything else." You can choose from four types of kabobs -- marinated beef, ground beef, lamb, and chicken -- all served over flavored rice and all improved with the garlic sauce. (Ask if the garlic sauce comes with your particular entree.) You can also get kabobs in various combinations: kabob with falafel, kabob with shawirma, kabob with falafel and shawirma, etc. You can order the ground beef -- called kafta -- cooked in a patty, and served with eggplant. We especially like a combination plate called Sultan: kafta mixed with sautéed green peppers, onions, zucchini, and tomato sauce, served over rice. The mixture of the vegetables with the seasoned meat is delicious.
There are a bunch of vegetarian options. Most of the appetizers are vegetarian, and you can order the falafel as an entree. We found the spinach pie tasteless and boring, even after we smeared it with garlic sauce.
Your best choice, at least on the first visit, is "mezza" sampler. It costs about as much as an appetizer and entree combination, and has a little bit of everything: hummus, baba ghannooj, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves, shawirma, cabbage rolls, kibbee (cooked or raw), and olives -- all to start -- and your choice of kabob. Remember that it all tastes better with a generous helping of garlic sauce, and you're in for a treat.
Service is pleasant and efficient -- friendly, even -- and the restaurant is much more elegant than you might expect from your average family-run ethnic restaurant. The lights are subdued, and the white tablecloths and fresh flowers add a lot. This isn't your typical no-charm ethnic restaurant; this is a nice dinner out. Even the traditional music, played low in the dining room, adds to the atmosphere.
There's belly dancing at Beirut on Friday and Saturday nights, and we recommend it. The show only lasts half an hour, so it won't completely drown your dinnertime conversation. Belly dancing is an important part of the Lebanese dining experience, and one of the points of the interior remodeling was to make the stage more central to the diners. Consider it part of the restaurant's decor. One of the dancers, Lilah, is a friend of ours. Call and ask when she's performing. And tip her well if you're there.
Dinner at Beirut is less than $20. Entrees cost $11–$13, an appetizers run about $5. This is cheap, considering the upscale atmosphere, the entertainment, and the wonderful garlic sauce. And don't forget to take some home with you. It's great on toast at breakfast.