Tuck into a traditional Lebanese meal with the locals at Lebanese Flower. (Photos: Natasha Amar)
Home to Emiratis and expats united by a common love of food, it’s no surprise that Abu Dhabi is home to the best of world cuisine — from Far East flavors to Tex-Mex. Still, if you ask a resident, they’ll tell you that their most beloved food is, hands down, Lebanese. This budget-friendly comfort food evokes fond childhood memories in locals and is available in every neighborhood thanks to entrepreneurial Lebanese restaurateurs who now call the city home.
Zahrat Lebnan, also known as Lebanese Flower, is one of Abu Dhabi’s oldest Lebanese restaurants and has enjoyed brisk business from locals and visitors since it first opened its doors in 1983. That’s hardly surprising; it is the kind of simple and authentic dining experience where customers know exactly what to expect, namely, a lavish spread of Middle Eastern fare at a price that leaves your wallet as happy as your belly.
The restaurant’s popularity led its owners to open six locations across the city, but the oldest branch of Zahrat Lebnan remains something of an institution in Abu Dhabi. The restaurant stands on an unassuming street in the Tourist Club area of Al Zahiyah. Despite nearby competition and the city’s rapidly evolving food scene, this humble eatery has remained a local favorite for more than 30 years.
“After I delivered my last baby, I made my husband go get me a takeaway from Lebanese Flower at 3 a.m.!” says Chandni Rogers, a British expat who moved from London three years ago and visits Lebanese Flower with her family twice a month. “Abu Dhabi has a ton of swanky restaurants, and once in a while it’s nice to go somewhere cheap and cheerful where the food is consistently delicious.”
When asked about what she would recommend, Rogers advises, “Hands down (they serve) the best shawarmas in town! We always have the chicken and lamb shawarma sandwiches, and being a vegetarian I always order the falafel sandwich, moutabel and hummus.”
On a laid-back weekend, while most residents had yet to don sunglasses and emerge from their homes, I’ve decided on a late lunch at Zharat’s original Al Zahiyah branch, where the magic all began.
As my lunch date and I enter the restaurant, a cook flashes us a brief smile through a glass window and then returns to his task: piling pickled chili on a small plate. The interior of the restaurant is simple and unpretentious. Sunlight streams in through a large glass window, photos in neat black frames featuring historical ruins hang on white walls, and the ochre, mustard and red striped seats of high-back chairs at black tables add warmth to the family area, a section of six tables where we’re seated.
Two other tables are occupied; one by a teen in a jersey with his hat on backward, wiping clean the last bit of hummus in his dish with a piece of bread. At the other one sits a middle-aged man who pauses to contemplate every few seconds as he sips on his cup of Moroccan tea and scribbles something into a small notebook .
As my date browses the menu, I talk to Mohamed Saqr, the impeccable young manager who has been working at Zahrat Lebnan for the past five years. “I can recommend you some mixed grill, fattoush, some hummus,” he says. “These and the biryani and rice dishes are some of our best-selling.”
Saqr explains that the restaurants attracts customers, locals and tourists, of all nationalities, including Lebanese, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Indian. His reason for the restaurant’s popularity is simple: “We have been here many years. Our customers come here because they know what to expect; they even bring guests who are visiting.”
Marilyn Camilleri, an expat who moved to Abu Dhabi from Cardiff and is a regular at Lebanese Flower would agree. “We take visitors to Lebanese Flower because we like to give them an insight into local traditions, so Lebanese Flower and the Heritage Village are on top of our list,” she says. “It’s so refreshing to get away from the many glitzy places in the city; the food is delicious, the staff is helpful and they’re good with children.”
With its six branches across the city and a change of ownership from when the chain first opened, I am curious about how the brand maintains the same standards across its restaurants — the texture of the moutabel (eggplant dip), the tanginess of the dressing in the fattoush (salad) and the ratio of spices in the meat arayes (minced lamb sandwiches).
Mohamed explains, “We have a central kitchen where the food for all the branches is prepared in the marinade and spices. Then it’s brought here and cooked or grilled, so the taste remains the same.”
A few minutes later, we’re making our way through an elaborate mezze, the Arabic term for a platter of hot and cold appetizers, including salads, dips, pickles and bite-sized finger food that precedes the main course.
I break a piece of khabaz (Arabic bread) and dress it up with a dollop of creamy hummus Beiruti (chickpea dip) generously drizzled with olive oil. It’s perfectly smooth, and the parsley adds a pleasant flavor. The fattoush is cool and refreshing with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, green peppers and cucumbers and crunchy bits of fried khabaz topped with tart sumac dressing. I dip a crunchy brown falafel into tahini and take a bite of the tangy pickle before I pop it into my mouth. The hot and crispy goodness isn’t lost on me.
I try to stop myself from twirling my fork around in the dish of hummus and reaching out for more; my main course of shish tawook (a skewered kebab of marinated chicken) is on its way.
The meal arrives under a large piece of khabaz and with a generous side of fries. The dish is well worth the wait; the meat has a great smoky flavor from the charcoal grill, is succulent and not too spicy, and pairs well with the hummus. I wash it all down with a lemon-mint juice, pleasantly cool on a hot sunny afternoon.
In no time my date and I have polished off a large meal, but here’s the thing about Middle Eastern hospitality: There’s no such thing as overindulging when you have a Lebanese host. With hearts as full as our bellies, we thank Mohamed and step out into what feels like blinding sunshine only to see that a queue of SUVs has formed outside the restaurant.
The staff hurries between the cars and the restaurant’s takeout window where workers prepare shawarmas to go. A few customers watch eagerly through the glass window as two cooks cut off meat shavings from the rotating spit then expertly gather them in an open khabaz; add French fries, pickle and garlic paste; and roll it up in parchment paper before handing it through the window. The city might just be waking up from its afternoon nap, but at Zahrat Lebnan, it’s business as usual.