Monday, July 11, 2011

A granny jewel called Al Falamanki

Making our way to Al Falamanki
Even before landing in Beirut a couple of weeks ago, my friend Sana Tawileh promised to take me to a place she was in no doubt I would love. As it turned out, she was right.

We arranged to get together on Sunday when Sana led me down a little street in east Beirut’s Sodeco area. “We’re making our way to Al Falamanki,” she explained.

Al Falamanki stems from “falamank” in Arabic, which specifically refers to antique diamond jewelry.

Credit to Sana for introducing me to this unique café-restaurant sparkler. I was blown away from my first step in.

Seating under an olive tree
Walking into Al Falamanki was like stepping inside either of my two grannies’ homes, whether in Beirut or Bethlehem. Everything looked familiar and cozy -- and that was even before I explored the garden area. This traditional Lebanese garden café-restaurant, sitting in a time-honored one-floor house in the middle of the bustling city, is a breath of fresh air.

It's like stepping inside either of my two grannies' homes
After many an “oh” and “wow,” Sana and I settled down in one of several comfy outdoor corners, where every chair, sofa and table is unique and distinctive in either style, fabric or upholstery. It was so soothing to sit outdoors, shaded by a parasol, surrounded by greenery and caressed by a gentle breeze that we stayed well into the afternoon.

We enjoyed an exceptional lunch of hummus balila, fattoush salad, makanek sausages, grilled halloumi cheese with fig jam and other yummy house specialties. But this isn’t a food review. It’s rather a glance at a place I thought was so original and ingenious.

Of course, I was itching to get out my little digital camera and start clicking, but the well-mannered waiters said I had to get permission first and gave me a number to call.

I phoned in the following week. I was impressed by the speed and efficiency of the reply: I was welcome to return in my own time to take pictures and blog about Al Falamanki at Mich Café. So I headed back the next Sunday for a late morning coffee before customers started flocking in.

Name branding (or the marketing practice of creating a distinguished presence on the market) led to the café-restaurant being named after Khalil Al Falamanki, a globetrotter from days of yore. His story, pictures and possessions are displayed all over the eatery.

Khalil with Grace Kelly and Clark Gable
Khalil's many tarabeesh
Khalil roamed the globe and met countless celebrities. There are “pictures” of him with Lebanese and international stars and politicians. His many tarabeesh (fezzes) are hung on one wall, his ouds (stringed musical instruments) on another.

Khalil's cameras and clocks
Cigarette cases that take you back half a century at least
The furniture takes you back half a century at least, as do the cabinets with Khalil’s cameras, cigarette cases, lighters, watches and, of course, worry beads.

His only son, Anis, recounts Khalil’s story on the menu:

In English and... Arabic
Khalil Al Falamanki was born in Beirut in 1917. He took up wrestling in 1935 at age 18 to provide for his seven brothers and sisters. He met his good-looking bride-to-be Souad Karam in March 1940 and married her six months later.

At the peak of his wrestling career, an injury forced Khalil into early retirement from the ring. Egyptian business tycoon Tarek Fakhry swiftly enlisted him as his PA and bodyguard. The association went from strength to strength, ending no fewer than 12 years later on Fakhry’s death in 1952.

Khalil roamed the globe with Fakhry during the 12 years. In January 1946, they attended the opening of Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. The following year, Fakhry took Khalil with him on a tour of Europe, where he introduced him to several worldwide celebrities.

They frequently stopped over in Egypt to see King Farouk and often visited business partners in California where they would bump into the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and Grace Kelly.

After Fakhry’s death in 1952, Khalil managed to maintain and even build on the contacts he developed over the past decade.

The 1956 birth of son Anis was a source of pride and joy for Khalil. His two other joys were music and politics. Khalil passed away in 1982.

Anis continues:

Soon after, I discovered the many facets of the father I didn’t get to know well enough because of his travels. I started collecting the bits and pieces he left behind, such as his pictures with famous people, his hunting rifles, his backgammon tables, his many ouds and his inseparable tarabeesh. I decided to put them all under one roof in a place that would celebrate his love of food and music -- a place that would recognize and celebrate his rich life. This place is Al Falamanki.

Preparing to bake tannour bread in a traditional wood oven
A shelved counter is built around the front kitchen area where a traditional wood oven bakes fresh bread and saj or tannour bread made from special dough with no milk, sugar or oil. I was told the café-restaurant’s developers went on a road trip all over Lebanon “to find premium ingredients hidden in lost villages, where genuine production techniques withstood the test of time.”

The wall of mirrors
Vintage items on the shelves
On shelves here and there are old radio sets, aged sewing machines, paraffin stoves, a typewriter, Khalil’s riding boots, the backgammon boards and other odds and ends. The floor indoors is made of colorful and assorted tiles. Even the men and women’s restrooms have special mirrors and lights. Each chandelier is a specimen.

The women's restroom
Outdoors, no detail is spared, down to the lights and birdcages hidden by tree leaves.

Entertainment is card games or backgammon. The Sunday morning I was there clicking at my camera at an off-peak hour, a few couples were enjoying sheesha with breakfast and coffee. The voice of Fairouz and other old melodies blended with the chirping birds, Sunday morning church bells and the noon call to prayer from the nearby mosque.

Adam with "Wishes Come True" volunteers Celine and Rudy
A pleasant Sunday feature at Al Falamanki: the volunteers from “Wishes Come True,” a children’s entertainment company. Celine and Rudy were there to keep kids entertained and busy with drawings, hand and face painting and games.

Lillian and I had Sunday morning coffee
My cousin Lillian and I were only there for Sunday morning coffee and I was a bit disappointed my Arabic coffee came in a small cup instead of an ibric, one of the many copper pots displayed on the shelves and designed specifically to make Arabic coffee.

Rocca salad, tabbouleh and hindbeh
Fool and hummus balila, like I had with Sana
As we weren’t eating, I took pictures of dishes being served. Luckily we were invited for lunch, because the dishes all looked mouthwatering.

After going around Al Falamanki one more time, to make sure I had photographed everything, we went out through the café-restaurant’s front arch, draped in a wisteria tree that I hadn’t seen since my days in London. But it wasn’t in bloom yet.

Leaving through Al Falamanki's front arch, draped in wisteria
I’ve only been to Al Falamanki during the day and maybe I should try it one night. But I’ll surely be back to enjoy the unique atmosphere, fine food and beautiful setting.

You can see Al Falamanki for yourself in these pictures.