A few kilometers away from a temple dedicated to Bacchus, in the heart of Bekaa Valley in Eastern Lebanon, stretches of vines remind visitors that the country of cedars was also once the country of vines. Speak to any local producer or exporter and he will undoubtedly remind you of Lebanon’s viticultural history and of its biblical roots, joking that when Jesus turned water into wine, in the southern Lebanon city of Cana, it wasn’t Italian wine 😉 It wasn’t French wine either, though Lebanon’s modern wine industry was heavily influenced by France’s own culture and traditions. After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Lebanon became a “protectorate” of France, from which it gained independence in 1943. Since then, its history has been tumultuous, marred by conflicts with its neighbours Syria and Israel, a long civil war and a recent revolution. Its wineries have struggled along the way, with just five vignobles standing at the end of the civil war in 1991. Today, there are over 30 operating in Lebanon, and the wines that were first mentioned in the bible are now attracting worldwide attention.
Modern Lebanese wines “taste French” and that is not surprising since the wine industry in Lebanon is based on French grape varieties and has depended heavily on French or French trained winemakers. When I tasted the Château Ksara Special during a recent wine tasting at Dupont Circle’s Kabab-ji Grill I would not have guess that the 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot blend did not come from Southern France. And I mean that as a compliment, of course. The same thing happened with Château Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent, a robust, dark ruby wine made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carignan grapes. Overall, I was very impressed with most of the red wines I tried, and I even liked some of the Chardonnay based wine (Château Ksara Blanc de Blanc, Château Ksara Chardonnay and the Château St. Thomas Chardonnay) despite not typically liking Chardonnays. Most are very affordable on the restaurant’s menu, ranging in the $30-40 price point for a bottle and with a few of them offered by the glass ($8-9 price range.) And of course, they are the perfect pairing for Kabab-ji’s authentic Lebanese cuisine.
For anyone who has spent some time in the gulf, Kabab-ji Restaurants are a welcome familiar sight, with franchises throughout the region offering a casual alternative to American fast food dining options. But don’t call it a chain 😉 My friend Jenn, whose family still lives in Beirut, pointed out that with 35 outlets in the world (and just one in North America), Kabab-ji Grill can hardly be called a chain or be labeled a Middle Eastern Kentucky Fried Chicken. And the food is much better, making Kabab-ji Grill a favourite spot of Lebanese expats and local Armenians. Its signature kebabs of beef, chicken or vegetables are proudly displayed at the front and grilled to order, though my favourite item on the menu requires no grilling at all. That would be the southern kebbeh, a spicy middle eastern take on France’s steak tartare. On a hot summer day, try people-watching from one of the tables on the restaurant’s patio front, with a refreshing plate of tabouleh and a glass of Château Ksara Sunset, a dry rosé. Or stay cool inside with the air conditioning and share a bottle of Château Ksara Cabernet Sauvignon (100% cabernet grapes) and a variety of hot and cold mezzes. Although you might have a hard time sharing the Kebbeh Mikleyes… or the bottle of wine for that matter 😉
Kebab-ji Grill is located at 1351 Connecticut Avenue, NW. The restaurant’s wine list includes selections from Château Ksara, a vineyard that was established by Jesuits back in 1857; Château Musar, Lebanon’s best known and most exported wines, with strong ties to the Bordeaux region; Massaya wines, Cave Kouroum and Clos St. Thomas “Il faut en boire pour y croire…”