When Patricia and Antoine Massoud bought the Collingswood BYO Porch & Proper in January 2020, they were not thinking it would become what it is today: a showcase for the culinary traditions of Patricia’s Lebanese homeland. They initially kept the name and continued the New American menu. Two months later, however, Covid-19 came along, and like so many other restaurateurs, they shut down.
The restaurant was still closed when, in August of last year, the city of Beirut was rocked by a massive explosion on the waterfront that left more than 200 dead, including a close friend of Patricia’s. She herself had been born in Lebanon, and the family had been living there until returning to New Jersey in 2019. When the Massouds reopened their restaurant last September, it had a new name, Li Beirut (“for Beirut”), and a menu to match.
“In memory of my family and friends back home,” she says, “I wanted to show American people that Lebanon is not what they see on TV, all bombings and war. We have a lot of culture. And Lebanese people are friendly and generous.”
Those qualities are on full display at the Massouds’ bright and airy 50-seat storefront, where diners sit at wooden tables and dig into colorful ceramic bowls filled with equally inviting Lebanese flavors. There is no better way to begin your immersion than by ordering Taste of Lebanon. This board of small plates, hot and cold, called mezza, comprises salads, mains and desserts for $45 per person. If you are a germaphobe, this might not be for you, since the joy here is in sharing, which adds to the sense of celebration.
“This is the way we eat,” says Patricia, 45. “If you come to my house, I don’t just put out one plate. I put out lots of small plates, so you can taste everything. We sit and eat slowly, drink a cup of wine or two, and just enjoy the food.”
Indeed, this sense of dropping in on family is reinforced by the fact that Li Beirut runs mainly on Massoud-family steam. While Patricia is ensconced in the kitchen, Antoine, 52, runs the front of the house, with a strong assist from their three teenage children, who report to the restaurant after school.
Early in the pandemic, the Massouds looked into adapting their seasonal, individually prepared and beautifully plated dishes for takeout. When that did not prove practical, Patricia realized the answer was already at hand—the dishes she grew up with in her father’s Beirut restaurant and her grandmother’s kitchen. Patricia’s hummus, falafel, kibbeh, shawarma and other Lebanese dishes quickly found favor with locals. The reopening name, Li Beirut, is the title of a popular song by Lebanese singer Fairuz. It became an unofficial national anthem during the height of the country’s civil war in the 1980s.
While Lebanese cuisine features some dishes and cooking methods found in neighboring countries like Syria and Israel, Patricia says the difference lies in the ingredients and how they are combined. To that end, she tries to source products from her home country, like El Koura olive oil and Al Kanater tahini. She asks friends who visit from Lebanon to bring her spices, and she combines them in her seven-spice mixture that flavors several dishes. In her home garden in Cherry Hill, she grows parsley, purslane and mint using seeds from Lebanon.
The effort pays off: the nutty tahini bolsters her lemony hummus; her garden mint brightens the labne, a yogurt she makes that requires repeated strainings over a couple weeks. Her seven-spice blend—cloves, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, black pepper and allspice—enlivens dishes like sfiha, folded meat pies with a subtly sweet and spicy filling in a delicate pastry crust.
One of the simplest starters, fassolia, is one of the tastiest—velvety Lebanese white beans in garlic, lemon and olive oil. Sautéed squid in garlic and cilantro needed more seasoning, but I could come back every night for the arnabeet—fried cauliflower in a cloak of parsley, cayenne and allspice, with tahini dipping sauce—and the exemplary baba ghanoush, the eggplant smoky from cooking on a charcoal grill.
To fully experience Patricia’s prowess with charcoal, try her mixed grill, one of the entrées you can order with the Taste of Lebanon. It includes a succulent lamb chop, a kafta kebab sausage of spicy ground beef, a shish kebab skewer of barbecued filet mignon, and chicken. On a return visit, I had the garlicky lamb chops, perfectly seared and accompanied by grilled onions, tomatoes and green peppers. Li Beirut’s two fish entrées are made with cod: samke harra, with tomato, onion and walnut topping, was a bit gummy, while tajin, baked in rich tahini sauce, was flaky and delicious, with an intriguing note of orange flower.
Patricia’s flaky pistachio baklava topped with pistachio powder was exemplary. For something more exotic, try the muhallabieh milk pudding, infused with rose water, or the kanafe, layers of hot, not-too-sweet baked cheese over cracker-like semolina. For eye-rolling sweetness, go with ghazal Beirut, a dish of house-made ice cream topped with a nest of spun sugar and pistachios.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Lebanese
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Mezza (appetizers), $7–$12; entrées, $18–$25; desserts, $5-$9; Taste of Lebanon set menu, $45 (available to any size party; required for parties of five or more)
- Ambience:Family celebration
- Service:Knowledgeable and personal
- Wine list:BYO, with wines available from Hawk Haven winery in Rio Grande