“I originally wanted to buy an American restaurant and just add some Lebanese touches,” says chef Patricia Massoud.
And she had found seemingly the perfect place with Porch & Proper in Collingswood, which she and her husband, Antoine Massoud, bought in late January 2020 on her birthday. The purchase happened just four months after the two moved to South Jersey from Beirut with their three teenage children. Having eaten there multiple times, she said, the restaurant’s existing tilework floors and rustic wooden tables “reminded me of home.”
Her early inspiration for Levantine flourishes would result in green pea hummus, cardamom-yogurt sauce for chitarra pasta, and a rose water-splashed pavlova for Valentine’s Day 2020.
But the Massouds were forced to close their restaurant less than two months into their ownership when the pandemic shutdown hit in mid-March. And then came a pair massive explosions in the port of Beirut on Aug. 4 that left more than a quarter million residents displaced and hundreds dead. Among them were several of Patricia’s friends and family.
“It really touched me,” she said, explaining why she immediately decided to change the restaurant’s concept and name. It would be reborn in October as Li Beirut with a menu fully focused on traditional Lebanese cooking, from kibbeh to the shish taouk she grew up cooking alongside her grandmother, Suraya El Harouny.
“I made (this place) in memory of my friends who I lost and my family who I left there to show support for the Lebanese people,” she says. “I’m not in my country, but I can show (Americans) about us, our generosity and our healthy cuisine.”
If the name Suraya is familiar, it’s no coincidence. Massoud is cousins with Roland Kassis and Nathalie Richan, the siblings who named their spectacular Fishtown palace of contemporary Lebanese flavors — Suraya — after their common grandmother.
Massoud’s mission is to present homier representations of Lebanese classics on her menu at Li Beirut, whose name is a nod to the song by Fairuz, the singer who released her tribute to the capital in 1984 at the height of Lebanon’s civil war. YouTube covers of the song have become a rallying cry of support for Lebanon.
Massoud’s culinary tribute evokes Beirut through its vivid, well-wrought flavors, with a menu that rises on key ingredients that she often sources directly from Lebanon, like the Al Kanater tahini that both drives the flavor of Massoud’s lemony hummus (light on cumin; pale from ice water) and also lends a distinctly thicker texture. That tahini also anchors the deeply smoky baba ghanouj.
There is a parade of classic mezza to begin, that display the subtleties of her knowing touch — the tightly rolled Warak Enab Bel Zeit grape leaves filled with rice touched with lemon, mint, and good El Koura olive oil from North Lebanon; the garden green crunch of faintly citrusy purslane in the fattoush. The pointy ovals of fried kibbeh balls were deftly shaped by hand so their allspice-scented ground beef and lamb stuffings remained perfectly centered inside.
Li Beirut’s grilled meats are a highlight thanks to intricate spicings that flavor the meat after long marinades. I loved the juicy chicken shish taouk, but also the lamb chops, perfumed for two days with coriander and garlic before they’re cooked, that were served over a cushion of pitas painted orange and juicy with a peppery tomato glaze.
Li Beirut’s desserts are also not to be missed, from multiple variations on baklava (I’m always partial to pistachio) to the best kanafe of stretchy hot cheese, served beside a sesame-speckled pita to mute its sweetness that I’ve had since, well, Suraya.
Li Beirut did a fine job packing up this feast to go. But there’s no doubt these kebabs would be even juicer, and that kanafe more oozy, had we decided to eat on one of the restaurant’s pleasant front patio seats or increasingly available indoor dining room instead. Next time! This pure-hearted tribute to Lebanon may ultimately have been sparked by a tragedy from 2020, but I’m confident I’ll be able to look forward to many return visits here in the future.
— Craig LaBan
Li Beirut, 619 W. Collings Ave., Collingswood, 856-477-2105; libeirutnj.com