WRITER: Anissa Helou PHOTOGRAPHER: Elie Bekhazi
In creating Villa Clara, husband and wife team Olivier Gougeon and Marie-Hélène Mouawad have not only brought a bit of old Beirut back to life, they’ve turned it into a taste of the times.
I don’t remember anywhere like Villa Clara in pre-war Beirut, yet when I went there for lunch recently, it felt as if I had stepped back in time to when I lived near Hamra and the vie de quartier was shared by all. Perhaps it felt this way because of the extraordinarily garish wedding going on in the building across the road, complete with zaffeh. Or it may have been because of the Villa’s understated, old-fashioned charm, where I felt as if I was visiting a friend’s home, all those years ago.
Villa Clara - hotel and restaurant - is the creation of Olivier Gougeon and Marie-Hélène Moawad, a husband and wife team who rented the 1920s villa in Mar Mkhayel and turned it into a stylish yet cosy hotel, where guests will feel as much at home as we did when we ate there. Marie-Helene is front of house while Olivier is in charge of the kitchen. His parcours to chef-owner has taken him from one impressive place to another, including the Grand Vefour in Paris where he was pastry chef under Guy Martin and the French embassy in Lebanon with stints in between at places like the Majestic in Cannes and the Relais de la Poste in the Landes, where he fed Francois Mitterand ortolans (the French equivalent of our ‘assafir’).
However, as his career developed, Gougeon started doing a lot less cooking, taking on bigger administrative roles. These may have been more lucrative but they were less fulfilling. “I really wanted to go back to cooking,” he tells me. “My wife looked for a space in Beirut for more than a year. Finally, we found this amazing villa from the 1920s, located in a rapidly booming neighbourhood and immediately fell in love with it.”
They spent another year refurbishing. “We really wanted to keep it homey,” he continues. “The restaurant can fit twice as many chairs as we have now.” It can barely fit 30 people now but keeping the number of diners down, Gougeon explains, allows him to propose a personalised menu. “People can call and ask me for special dishes or cakes. Take today, for example. I cooked a ‘chapon en croûte de sel’ (scorpion fish baked in a salt crust) while last week I prepared ‘canard au sang’ (pressed duck) with my press - I love old-fashioned French dishes. I brought back my collection of copper pots and pans from France. I have pieces from the 19th century and pots from the Orient Express. I use them all to cook.”
After visiting the rooms, I asked Olivier how he and Marie-Hélène came to decide on the style of decoration. “Ramy Boutros is the very talented decorator. He helped us a lot and it was very pleasant collaborating with him. We only bought pieces that have a story and every piece was bought with a ‘coup de coeur’ (love at first sight), especially by Marie-Hélène. She spent a lot of time searching for the right furniture, like the French Senate chairs, the zinc bar from the 1920s and the Napoleon III fireplace. We also bought many designer pieces from the Saint James Hotel.”
I wondered how the hotel was doing, given the difficult present situation in Beirut. So I asked if the Lebanese were enjoying the restaurant. “Surprisingly, the hotel is doing well despite the uncertain situation” he replies, adding “when we launched, we realised there was no such concept in town. The hotel is very small, with only seven rooms and our guests very much enjoy the fact that being at Villa Clara is like being nowhere but in Beirut. Moreover, the house itself and the neighbourhood of Mar Mkhayel are a resurrection of the golden ages of Beirut.” Which is exactly what I felt when I spent the afternoon in their garden, enjoying every bite.
I don’t normally eat Western-influenced food in Lebanon. It always seems old-fashioned and nowhere nearly as good as what I’d get in Europe or America but reading the menu, I knew the food was going to be different. I was not wrong. Gougeon’s approach reminded me of Fergus Henderson’s at St John’s. Well-sourced ingredients prepared simply and to perfection.
“As for our philosophy, I strongly believe the Lebanese share our quest for authenticity. ‘Think global, act local’ has to become a reality. The menu changes everyday so I can offer fresh products. I make my own ‘jambon a l’os’ (ham on the bone) and terrines to use in the restaurant. My next dream is to open up a small charcuterie.”
Well, I hope he realises this dream. If the food at Villa Clara is anything to go by, Gougeon’s charcuterie will be where all Beirut rushes to buy their ham and sausages.
Everything we ate that day was exquisite, from the fabulous heirloom tomato simply sprinkled with fresh za’atar that added sharpness to their sweetness, to the delicious lentils topped with thinly sliced air-dried beef and veal kidneys, still pink as they should be and served in a luscious mustard sauce. Meanwhile, the slow-cooked leg of veal came with a superior gravy and the best roast potatoes I have ever eaten in Beirut. Both kidney and leg were from a milk-fed calf, reared by a farmer Olivier knows up north.
I walked away happy but the next time, I plan to stay the night. Some clients do. After a long leisurely dinner, could anything be better than not having to go home?