Moving Arabic cuisine forward

There’s daring new dishes on the menu at one new Manama eatery

Moving Arabic cuisine forward
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‘The first time I told my colleagues about it, they looked like they were going to be sick’.

Restaurateur Peter Lyons is describing the moment he pitched his newest venture’s trademark dish – a chocolate shawarma.

Yes, you read that right: A chocolate shawarma. Chunks of sugary, sweet treat chipped off a giant 35 kilogramme slab of chocolate, all served in a wrap with side of ice cream and pineapple finger fries.

‘They thought I was going to mix chocolate with beef or chicken,’ he quickly explains, ‘and everyone who’s tried it has loved it.’

The chocolate shawarma is just one of the numerous bespoke takes on the classic Arabic delicacy on the menu at Bayti. In fact the new Manama restaurant appears to be on a single-handed mission to take the omnipresent everyday 300 fils snack we know and love into the realm off ‘gourmet, bespoke’ shawarmas.

Think Subway or Gourmet Burger Kitchen – but for shawarma. Patrons can choose from a range of different breads, all baked on site, plus a range of salad options, and exotic fillings like seafood alongside traditional chicken and beef, and a choice of garnishes. Other specialities include a liquid Turkish delight.

The concept of the restaurant, which takes its name from the Arabic for ‘home’, is to take classic dishes from across the region – from Jordan and Egypt to Lebanon and back to Bahrain – and give them a contemporary twist.

It’s a self-described ‘labour of love’ for Mr Lyons, general manager at parent company Bahrain Family and Leisure Company.

‘When I arrived a year ago the concept was going to be Arabic-Italian [fusion],’ remembers the 36-year-old Brit.

‘I thought “that’s crazy” – I threw that idea in the bin and started again.

‘I have seen people try and bring Arabic cuisine to a contemporary audience place, and there’s lot of resistance from the traditionalists. We’ve taken traditional recipes and not altered too much.’

Instead the recipe focuses on contemporary presentation, with both shawarmas and grills served ‘vertically’.

The restaurant is also taking steps to try and educate diners, introducing tourists to the otherwise beguiling world of Arabian cuisine.

‘In Arabic restaurants they don’t tend to describe the food,’ explains Peter. ‘Tabbouleh is on every menu, but if you’ve never experienced it, you don’t know what to expect. Our menu will explain where it’s from, the history of the dish and the ingredients.’

As well as the menu, the restaurant’s modern approach is reflected in its funky, modern decor. Where many Arabic restaurants remain dark, Bayti is bright, mixing traditional touches such as Lebanese archways and Arabic floor tiling with a modern diner feel, with walls lined with scenes from classic 1950s Arabic TV shows.

It’s this attention to detail that will be carried over to the restaurant’s staff, Mr Lyons pledged, with an extra effort taken to train staff to a higher level. ‘The fact is a lot of restaurants are service driven and its scripted messages a lot of the time,’ he added. ‘As soon as you go off that script with a problem the server doesn’t have the training necessary to creatively remove the obstacle, and they fall apart. You just become a number.’

The restaurant sits off King Faisal highway in the long-unoccupied spot where Ponderosa Steakhouse used to be – a prime location for daytime dining thanks to all the nearby offices. But the restaurant’s managers know they’ll have to offer something new if they want to stand out after dark. Ultimately, it’s a fresh approach to familiar classics which they’re hoping will do the trick.

‘Being based in the financial centre we know we’ll be busy in the daytime,’ added Mr Lyons, ‘but after work every one goes home, and in the evenings we’ll have to prove we’re a destination restaurant.

‘People are afraid to change things, most cuisines have evolved a great deal in the last ten, 15 years, but Arabic food could seem a little behind the times. We’re bringing Arabic food into the 21st Century.’
Open daily 7am-midnight. Bayti, Off the King Faisal highway, next to Kids Kingdom and in front of Bahrain Financial Harbour, www.bflc.com.bh (1722 9778).

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