MEAT THE FISH
A look at Meat the Fish, a popular eatery in Beirut’s Saifi Village, soon coming to the Aishti Foundation in Jal el Dib.
A stroll through the faux French mandate buildings of Saifi Village is usually a meditative experience, accompanied only by the sounds of leaves rustling on trees in Saifi Square and high heels clicking on cobblestones between boutiques. Meat the Fish, the shop and attached restaurant selling freshly imported fish, shellfish, poultry and steaks, has disrupted the reverie. Since its opening in November 2014, Saifi’s pedestrians between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. will see a scrum of well-dressed people spilling out of the doors onto the street, waiting for up to an hour to nibble inventive sandwiches, salads and what might be the freshest sashimi in Beirut. For those tempted to recreate the menu at home, shimmering fish and fat mollusks are attractively displayed on ice and wooden palettes, with hand-written signs indicating their provenance.
But the days of Saifi Village’s monopoly on Meat the Fish are numbered. In October, residents of Beirut’s northern suburbs will also have the chance to wait for a Meat the Fish lunch, hungrily eyeing still-occupied tables, as the shop’s second location opens in The Aïshti Foundation in Dbayeh.
While expansion would seem like a natural outgrowth of such a successful first location, founder Karim Arakji had to be convinced to partner with Aïshti, he says, chuckling. “When Tony [Salamé] suggested it, I was flattered by his interest but thought we weren’t ready,” Arakji recalls. “But when I went to visit the new space, I saw his attention to detail… and felt his excitement about having us be a part of it, not to mention the beautiful space he offered us overlooking the sea and the unbelievable art foundation attached to the mall.” Arakji was persuaded that this was an opportunity too fresh to pass up.
The Aïshti location, says Arakji, will embody the same “spirit” as the Saifi Village shop. More tangible similarities include the same wood-and-Styrofoam meat and fish market, the same tiny restaurant and the same menus; a “lovely terrace” will be an added bonus for Dbayeh patrons. The concept of a brick-and-mortar space spent rather a long time in development. Having grown up cooking under the auspices of his father, who holds a Ph.D. in food science, Arakji moved back to Lebanon from the U.S. in 1997 to found Royal Gourmet, a smoking business, with the intention of selling smoked salmon to Middle East Airlines. From salmon, the team branched out into selling wholesale other kinds of fish, then beef, veal and poultry, to restaurants and other business clients throughout Lebanon.
From there, the team shifted to a customer-based approach, selling to individual clients via a delivery service. It became clear that there were “lots of discerning clients in Lebanon who weren’t getting what they need from supermarkets,” says Arakji. “We already had the road to market, so what was the risk?” he asks with a smile.
When Arakji brought chefs Mitch Tonks and Reem Azoury on board – for the dual purpose of guiding clients looking for advice on preparing their freshly delivered goods, as well as hosting exclusive pop-up meals to help get the word out – the idea for the restaurant concept came close behind.
Based solely on its two locations, one would guess correctly that a visit to Meat the Fish comes dear; guests will definitely pay more for animal protein here than at the supermarket. But Arakji is quick to reject the idea that Meat the Fish is a luxury service. “Our food is accessible to everyone,” he says. “Every week at Souk el Tayeb [the farmer’s market in downtown Beirut], all the other vendors buy their weekly meat from us,” Arakji says.
“These people aren’t rich, but they’re willing to pay more because they know the value of the product.”
Aishti by the Sea, Jal el Dib
–Stephanie d’Arc Taylor