I am acutely aware of my softer, self-indulgent attitude to dieting now. After a summer spent on the water or beside it, invariably ending the day in a good restaurant, I decided to give it a bit of a break. This does not mean swapping to a diet of dust and greens. Indeed, I have been in the company of too many good men who started out that way and then dined on wine, leaving their plate looking like a garden in autumn: strewn with basil leaves. No, I only resolved to refrain from going to restaurants for about six weeks. This seemed reasonable and manageable……two weeks ago.
Tonight I decided to follow Oscar Wilde’s (rather than my wife’s) advice on dealing with temptation, and yielded to it.
Off I went, protestant spouse in tow, to Pepe Nero’s latest addition to a fast growing chain of restaurants. It is the Lebanese place in Tal-Ibragg on the premises of the historic Jessie’s bar, which opened here in 1921. Jesse stayed in the family business and her long years as a kind and unpretentious publican to the local community of Brits and Maltese people was remembered, movingly, in her funeral: Among the many Maltese who attended, there was also a group of former patrons who flew down from the UK to be present for her final send off.
We took our seats early when it was relatively empty but it is a small place which will get busier and busier, I predict. It would be wise to book before going.
I can tell you very quickly that I found only one objectionable thing about this Pepe Nero; the name. It is a misnomer, if ever there was one, to call this Lebanese ‘fusion’. This is Phoenician cuisine in its purest form. We like to use words like fusion because it suggests both newness as well as compromise but Ali Taki, the chef who came out of retirement to be the soul of this operation, is neither new nor open to compromise. When many people my age were running around in their first cars, unbothered about their careers after university, Taki was Chef Patron of Senabel, the top restaurant in gritty Tripoli. He cooked for the great, the good and the Gaddafis. That’s three separate categories. Chirac, Fenech Adami and Craxi went. Dom Mintoff too. Clearly, three categories are not enough.
When he could not take it any longer he and his wife gathered their five children and flew out, destined for a new life in Frankfurt. The obligatory stopover in Malta was fateful. His wife could not tear herself away from what seemed to be a Beirut away from home. ‘Ftajjar’for bread and ‘għeneb’ for grapes, were among a plethora of Maltese words that come from the same mother tongue that we share with our Lebanese brothers and sisters. These took her to the point of tears and she pleaded with her family to stay in this tiny island.
The rest is history, a long history. Ali Taki’s career was enduringly successful and when he retired, hating it, the entrepreneurs behind Pepe Nero, Claude Paris and Ottavio Suda did something unprecedented: they built a restaurant concept around this seasoned chef.
We have become accustomed to a variety of spices in the Middle Eastern cuisine we eat in the West. Ras el Hanut and coriander have become as synonymous with this fare, as lemongrass is with Thai food. In Lebanon this is not what you will find in traditional home kitchens. Lemon juice, a head of garlic and olive oil are the three staples and a small red chili pepper will be scrubbed on fresh bread as the day is long.The Fatayyer bil Lahme, little loaves with mince are always popped in the oven together but now many places will cook the mince separately and beforehand, adding in different flavours. It may be tasty, indeed its probably fusion, but its not Phoenician.
Aside of the Fatayyer, Taki served us hummous bil lahme, fried pitta bread crisps and the breath-taking beef liver (with aromatic rice) which I cut in small pieces and ate on a pitta crisp like a crostina. If anything is worth your thousand calorie hit, it is surely this.
All this , a plate of Halawa and two glasses of red from the Bekaa Valley, literally the Weeping Valley, cost just 56 euros. Add a tenner for the impeccable service from all the staff and we left all smiles, no tears.
Georg Sapiano is a lawyer based in Malta. As he travels the world on work or play he indulges in two of his favourite pastimes: eating and humorous writing.