The ‘Cedars’ of Lebanon

An escape to the Middle-East: couscous, color, & quality

The cavern-like diningroom of Le Cèdre, Lebanese restaurant | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Walking down the tree-lined Ausstellungsstraße cutting through Vienna’s 2nd District, you might be too repulsed by the gaudiness of the neighboring Wurstelprater amusement park to think of fine dining. Multi-colored lights of the Giant Wheels and haunted houses flash high above the newly built Admiral Casino standing in all its kitschy glory at the beginning of the street – not to mention the giant pig that houses a Bankomat machine near the underground station a bit further down.

[A trip down this utterly un-Viennese landscape is still worth it if you are in the mood for a proper Middle Eastern meal, even late at night when the city’s top prostitutes rule the area.]

At first site, the Lebanese restaurant Le Cedre seems just another inexpensive Gasthaus or pizzeria found on nearly every corner of the Leopoldstadt; the outdoor seating area is a plain concrete patio with plastic chairs and unflattering umbrellas.

Inside, however, a world of rich dark red, black and white sleekness awaits.

The contrast is startling, different not only from the tacky area outside but also from traditional Austrian locals that seem to have a love affair with bland shades of brown. Two opposing large black panels with ‘Le Cèdre’ carved in calligraphy hang from a pristine white ceiling, matched by an illuminated black half circle with the restaurant’s name carved multiple times in the back of the dining area. The whiteness of the brick walls seemed purified by the black decorations and chairs upholstered in rich red leather. The waiter, also clad in black, white and dark red – and looking surprisingly Lebanese – seated us politely at small table with a view to the bar, set in front of an identical black half circle.

The waiter gave me a mocking look when I asked for the traditional honey date juice g’spritzt (watered down with soda), so I decided not to push the matter – and found that the pure version wasn’t excessively sweet, as I had feared. After pondering the four pages of appetizers, the winner was clear: the appetizer platter with nearly 40 warm and cold Mézzes on offer.

The preparation of the platter took just long enough to examine the photos adorning the walls – a grand cedar tree of Lebanon’s flag stood covered in snow in one, Beirut at dusk in another, and several of desert-like Lebanese landscapes… until the appetizer platter arrived.

The plate came with hommus, Mutabbal Batinjan (eggplant purée), okra and green beans smothered in tomato sauce, potatoes in a fine parsley and peppermint spice, a wine leaf-and-rice concoction called Warak Inab, and the best Falafil ball I have ever sunk my teeth into, called, still piping hot. It was, as the menu claimed, laden with 15 spices and a number of vegetables, making it radically different from the plain, deep-fried chickpea ball you get at a kebab stand. The plate was garnished skillfully with pomegranate kernels, dark red beets and radishes, keeping the dark red trend alive. The only criticism: the potatoes were slightly undercooked and the beans and okra too cold. The rest, however, was delightfully fresh and flawlessly presented.

The main courses: lamb couscous and a dish dubbed Lahm Maschwi – a lamb on skewers with Lebanese rice and garlic sauce. Both waiter and owner visited our table ceaselessly as we finished the platter and waited for the main course, not necessarily doting on us but rather showing the warmth of Arab hospitality so different from stiff, Viennese Kaffeehaus waiters.

And the food looked as if it received the same attention: the Maschwi was decorated as attractively as the platter, neatly arranged with harmonized colors. And the couscous was almost too stunning to eat – an oval plate bursting with the colors of an autumn harvest basket, outlined with dark raisins that brought out the pastel pinks, oranges and purples. The meal itself was less flavorful than it looked, but still a solid meal for a hearty appetite.

The lamb skewers, however, told a different story. The Lebanese rice – basmati rice mixed with pine nuts and small brown noodles – was soothing, the lamb tender and it served with a garlic cream paste so intense only the smallest amount was needed. I had ordered a Salata Libnanieh to go with the Maschwi, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with vinaigrette laden with parsley and peppermint. Aside from the conviction that a refreshing salad should be mandatory, it was a very gratifying experience.

Thoughts of dessert, Lebanese tea or schnapps were quickly abandoned as we sat, satiated and happy after the main course. After a few quiet moments, we reentered the tawdry world of Ausstellungsstraße, noticing a few plumed creatures on the new shift.

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