Amal, the name in Arabic means “Hope.” This gorgeous new restaurant, offering authentic, modern Lebanese cuisine, has been created by the dynamic duo of Charles Khabouth and Danny Soberano.
Entering the sculpted white doors to Amal (Am-Elle) at a “family and friends” preview last night, my first impression is of a glorious ambiance of white interior design with a mural painted ceiling that adds a flattering glow to guests. The lighting is extraordinarily clever. It highlights the bursts of pale blues so reminiscent of the region, and makes the extra-comfy, distanced seating look like we’re in an elegant spacious living room. Lebanese music wafts through the air, but does not interfere with conversation. We sit on the landscaped terrace, on an overstuffed white pillow banquette overlooking Bloor St. It’s when I settled in and sipped my Musar Jeune White wine blend from Lebanon, while my friend enjoyed his Musar Jeune Red blend that I make my decision. This is where I want to have my lunches and dinners until the snow flies.
Charles Khabouth and Danny Soberano believe that Toronto is eager for some new flavour twists. They travel to Lebanon, research the restaurant scene, and bring back Beirut-born executive Chef Rony Ghaleb. His cuisine is influenced by the many civilizations that historically swept through the region, with a menu that includes elevated Lebanese dips, cold and hot mezze, skewers, platters, carne and the plat du jour. His modern traditional menu is an homage to the culture, and offers a dizzying selection of flavours, textures and colours, all served by a charming staff who’ve eaten these dishes in their own mother’s kitchens. They joyfully guide us through the menu and make recommendations.
To choose one dish from every section is impossible, but we try. A sampler of three dips comes with a tray of puffy pita straight from the oven. Lebanese Hummus has its own character, and this chickpea puree with tahini and lemon wearing a cap of whole peas is so pleasing. My favorite is Baba Ghanoush, the roasted eggplant puree with tahini and lemon, while my friend is thrilled with the aggressive flavours of Muhammara, a dip of fire-roasted red pepper, strengthened by house spices and textured with walnuts. I agree with him when he says, “I could order this trio, a few glasses of wine, and spend a very happy few hours.” From the section called Starters, we’re encouraged to delve into the unknown: Crispy eggplant rounds, with a dip of yogurt, compressed cucumbers and mint is interesting, but it’s the Truffle Rakakat that I’ll come back for. These puff pastry “cigars” are filled with cheeses and mint, with the ends dipped in honey and Pistachios. At this point, I could happily call it day, and have my coffee, but we soldier on through the culinary delights of the menu. Cold Mezze lists a half dozen exotic selections, but this time we will go with the familiar Tabbouleh, a refreshing chopped salad of parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions, piqued with an olive oil/lemon emulsion.
In Northern Lebanon, in the village of Bechealeh, there are 16 olive trees thought to be 6000 years old growing at an altitude of 1300 meters. They are claimed to be the source of the olive branch brought back to Noah by a bird, heralding the end of the flood. Next time, I’ll be ordering a dish of marinated olives with dried chili, citrus and bay leaves.
Vegetarians and Vegans will absolutely thrill to this menu! Roasted whole cauliflower with green tahini, hawaij spice, and feta; spicy potato cubes with garlic and coriander; Fattoush salad with Baby Gem lettuce as a base; Monk salad of roasted eggplant with pomegranate, garlic emulsion, and a brilliant grilled vegetable skewer. While the tables are too distanced to see clearly what our neighbors are enjoying, it all looks luscious and sparkles with freshness. Authenticity is key.
Skewers of roasted meats are a mainstay of this cuisine, each marinated in unique delicious herbs and spices. The Cherry Kabab, which is more than ample for sharing, is made with local minced beef, barbari, and carob molasses, and while we can’t put our finger on the exact seasonings, we don’t care, because the flavours of the spices elevate the ground beef. Surrounded by a frou frou of pita triangles slathered with muhammara, this skewer is excitement on a plate. I am intrigued by an entrée of broiled Icelandic Cod loin, blanketed in an exotic cilantro tahini, bejeweled with pine nuts and almonds, and partnered with a silver cup of wonderfully crisped French Fries. Chef Rony has a sense of humour with his fish ‘n chips.
The coffee is strong and the Baklava is sweet and nutty. And as the sun sinks in the West, the tiny patio lights come on, and seduce us to stay a little longer. Since we’ve been home-bound for some months, and now feel that it’s safe to step out a bit, Amal is the treat we all deserve. Wear your prettiest summer dress, bring your mask and enjoy Amal.
Opening to the public on Tuesday, August 18th
amaltoronto.com, 416-551-9929, The Colonnade, 131 Bloor Street W. 2nd floor.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Publisher/Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.