Sunday, October 2, 2011

Gemmayzeh by day ends at Couqley

A daytime walk in Gemmayzeh
My last Saturday in Beirut was long-winded. I tried to take in as much as possible and see as many friends as I could. But I didn’t imagine I would be out from breakfast to breakfast the next day! That’s how it is in Beirut -- there is so much to do, it’s difficult to resist.

Part of the day was spent in Gemmayzeh, the fashionable nightlife district of the capital that I had only visited at night. Luckily, I was invited there for breakfast and lunch -- the first at the beginning of the district’s main street, Rue Gouraud; and the second at its tail end.You can join me on my walk in Gemmayzeh in these pictures.

Downtown's Al Omari Mosque is always behind you
Gemmayzeh’s Rue Gouraud, on the edge of East Beirut’s Ashafieh quarter, is a relatively narrow street, which for the past eight years has been one of Beirut’s most fashionable.

It is named after French General Henri Gouraud (1867-1946) who represented his government in the Middle East from 1919 to 1923. As commander of French forces during the Franco-Turkish war, he presided over the creation of the French Mandates in Syria and Lebanon and commanded the forces sent to enforce the French allotment of the Levant. One of his decrees created the State of Greater Lebanon on September 1, 1920. He became head of the colonial government there.

Collège du Sacré-Coeur, in Gemmayzeh since 1894
The Collège du Sacré-Coeur entrance
Gouraud is remembered for marching into Damascus in July 1920 to put down an anti-colonial rising, standing on Saladin's grave, kicking it and saying: "The Crusades have ended now! Awake Saladin, we have returned! My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent."

The Rue Gouraud seamstress
The next pub or restaurant?
Anastasia Dagher Sursock's restored palace
Rue Gouraud is also just off Downtown Beirut. Most of its buildings date back to the Ottoman era or the 1950s. They are battling it out with demolitions and the construction of skyscrapers. The cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants mix with traditional trades – the grocer, seamstress, antiquaries... 

L'Escalier de L'Art -- the longest in the Middle East
To the left and right of Rue Gouraud are picturesque narrow streets, the most famous of which is L'Escalier de Saint-Nicolas or L'Escalier de L'Art. It runs between Rue Gouraud and St. Nicholas Church on Rue Sursock up or down 125 steps. The 500-meter St. Nicolas Staircase has since 1973 been used as an open-air art exhibition twice a year and a venue for festivals. It is the Middle East’s longest stairway.

A lot of old-timers are being squeezed out and priced out of Gemmayzeh because of the daily racket, difficulties in parking and high payout fees from commercial businesses. There is often trouble when residents complain en masse about noise pollution. The government tries to crack down on opening hours, but… 

Some buildings have been restored...
... with pastel colors
With more than 120 bars, pubs, café, lounges and restaurants packed into Gemmayzeh, it is crucial for newcomers to be ever more original and creative in what they offer patrons to stay ahead of the pack. So much so, that the area is extending further along Rue Gouraud into upcoming Mar Mikhael.

I took a “servees” -- or communal taxi -- from Beirut’s Hamra Street to get to Gemmayzeh. It was easy on a Saturday morning, free from week-day traffic. I stopped opposite Downtown Beirut’s blue and gold Al Omari Mosque and crossed the street to Rue Gouraud. 

Breakfast at Paul
My first call was breakfast at Paul, the first establishment at the beginning of the street with a beautiful garden. I met a dear friend, Hitaf Keirouz, to catch up on all our news. We enjoyed a platter of cheese and cappuccinos. Everyone must have had the same idea. The place was packed to the brim.

I had more than half an hour to spare before lunch, so I slowly walked down Rue Gouraud, snapping photos left and right. Each building is a story onto itself. I was so taken by it all that I missed The Alleyway, where I was meeting my lunch companions and ended up in Mar Mikhael. I had been to The Alleyway’s The Angry Monkey a week before, but everything looks different at night. I retraced my steps to find our chosen restaurant, Couqley.

Lunch at Couqley
Couqley is a French bistro located down The Alleyway. It serves traditional bistro meals prepared by executive chef and co-owner Alexis Couquelet, together with Ziad Kamel and Paddy Cochrane.

Ziad and Paddy launched The Alleyway in 2009 in the little Gemmayzeh side street. It includes Couqley, Gauche Caviar bar, Cloud 9 lounge, The Union boutique and The Tanning Salon.

I had heard a lot about Couqley’s weekend brunches while in Dubai through Ziad posting pictures on Twitter. It was apparently converted from an artisan’s workshop and features a traditional hand-cut mosaic stone floor, zinc bar and a pleasant and quiet outdoor seating area.

Maggie, Ghassan, Elie, Loulwa, Mohammad, Yasmine and Pierre
I couldn’t believe it when my friend Mohammad Hijazi said we were invited there with Yasmine Hajjar, Maggie Abu-Khadra, Pierre Younes, Loulwa Kalash, Elie Fares, Hisham Assaad and Ghassan Deeb. After being well received and seated, we admired the premises, loved the table settings with checkered napkins, and quickly got to the menu. We wanted to try everything and very nearly did!

My "Salade Endive Roquefort"

Everyone wanted to try the "Escargots"
I went for the “Salade Endive Roquefort” and “Couqley Omlet with Hash Browns.” But we all shared and tried each other’s dishes, among them the “Quiche of the Day,” “Steak Tartar,” “Escargots,” the “Couqley Bavette” and several omelets, all washed down with freshly-squeezed juices. We looked to Ghassan, who doubles as a cook, for his verdict. Luckily it was positive.

Nutella Pancakes and...

... caramel sauce Belgian Waffles for dessert
We saved the best for last and went halves on desserts – Belgian waffles and pancakes with different toppings and a Tiramisu for Elie and me.

The group photo!
By 4 p.m., and hardly able to move, we took the traditional group snapshot and headed our ways. I set out to Café Younes in Hamra to meet Lindsay, who until then was a virtual friend.

On my way home, I stopped as usual at Gustav -- the pâtisserie haven and our favorite hangout on Hamra Street. Apparently owners Khaled and Noor were having a BBQ at their home in the Mount Lebanon town of Ajaltoun, some 30 km north of Beirut. So off we went, with Maggie, Liliane, Jennifer, Abir, Bahaa and George. The night continued into the wee hours of Sunday. But that’s another story…

More photos of Gemmayzeh by day and brunch at Couqley.

Related posts:
The Angry Monkey is flying high – September 6, 2011