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Tue 3 Oct 2006 04:00 AM

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Smoking in the hills

Using traditional methods to smoke Scottish salmon in the Lebanese mountains, La Maison du Saumon has transported its concept from Beirut to Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates

|~|salmon2.jpg|~|The Royal is one of Salmontini's best selling items on the menu|~|Breaking the mould from most restaurants in Dubai, Salmontini offers a classic and simple menu. Not wanting to complicate and confuse its diners, the Lebanese-based restaurant limits its menu to just two pages, and while it may contain three varieties of beef tenderloin, lamb chops, and the occasional white fish, the restaurant certainly lives up to its name as La Maison du Saumon.

Based around one set theme, smoked Scottish salmon, restaurant owners Joe Bassili and Hussni Ajlani opened their first restaurant in 2001 in downtown Beirut. Spurred by the growth of the area, the restaurant thrived on business from the nearby parliament building, and played host to the late Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, twice a week.

However, after the assassination of Hariri and the rising number of demonstrations in the downtown area, Bassili and Ajlani decided to move the restaurant to Achrafieh, just outside the central district area, while the downtown Beirut location was transformed into a Lebanese restaurant.

“With the Achrafieh district really taking off we thought it was an ideal location to move the restaurant to,” says Bassili, co-founder, La Maison du Saumon.

“But the downtown area is still the jewel of Beirut,” he adds.

In July this year, Bassili and Ajlani decided to open up outside Lebanon and Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates was chosen as the first location in their expansion plan.

Overlooking Ski Dubai, the atmosphere in Salmontini Dubai differs greatly to its Beirut counterpart; with a younger, more laidback clientele. In a bid to appeal to the Lebanese expatriate community, as part of the opening, all the team members came from Lebanon, where they previously worked for La Maison du Saumon in Beirut.

“For the opening we wanted staff members that know our company and what we are about. So everybody who works here has worked for us in our Beirut restaurant,” Bassili comments.

“However, we suspected that after six months, some of the staff would want to return home, so we would have to employ new staff and train them. But unfortunately the war broke out, so I think most of them will stay here for the time being.”

The war in Lebanon also caused problems for the company back in Beirut. Not only was business quiet, but obtaining stocks was a challenge. The company was producing between 3000kg–5000kg of smoked salmon a week before the war broke out, but work in the smokehouse slowed down dramatically when the conflict erupted earlier this year.

Obtaining fresh fish was still possible, but importing salmon was impossible. Fortunately, Salmontini Dubai had smoked salmon stocks to last until mid-September, when Bassili was able to return to Beirut to continue production of the smoked salmon.

Importing smoked salmon straight to Dubai from Scotland was also not an option, as all the salmon is smoked in the company’s own smokehouse in the Lebanese mountains in Hayata. Importing fresh salmon from Scotland, it is then dried and smoked in the 300m² facility using a large German kiln from Reich. But despite using modern equipment, Bassili is still keen to use traditional smoking methods, so he programmes the kiln to the same conditions he used with his Afos smoker.

“The first ever smoking machine I used was an Afos; it lasted 15 years. However, as production increased from 50kg to 5000kg a week, I needed a bigger machine to handle the capacity, but one that allowed me to keep the process the same,” comments Bassili.

“It takes around 36–48 hours to smoke the salmon. I could do it in a much shorter time but why change something that works so well?”

Having worked in France and Monaco, Bassili first decided to enter the smoked salmon business in the 1990s. Originally he wanted to import smoked salmon into Lebanon but the Lebanese government imposed a 100% customs tax on caviar and smoked salmon shipped into the country. Therefore, Bassili decided to import the salmon and then smoke it himself.||**|||~||~||~|Because he wanted to use the authentic method of smoking salmon, he visited suppliers in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, to train at the local smokehouses. Since then, he has stuck to the traditional method of smoking, and even imports oak casks from a family-run whisky distillery in Scotland.

“First, you need to prepare the fish, warm it, and then leave the salmon to dry overnight. Once you have done this, the salmon then goes into the kiln for 12 hours.

“To let it mature, I let a crust form on top of the salmon. This is rare and not what a lot of smokers do. However, the crust seals the salmon during the drying and smoking process and suffocates any bacteria, as well as enhancing the flavour,” says Bassili.

Using traditional smoking methods does have its drawbacks. Not only is it a long process, but during the smoking and drying, the fish loses up to 40% of its weight. Larger companies inject the salmon with water and smoke before the drying process so it expands by 40% — in order to ensure that no weight is lost — but La Maison du Saumon avoids adopting this method.

“It is costly to do it the traditional way, and with the smoked heart of salmon, for example, 60% of the weight is lost.

“However, the secret to my survival is that I work with what I know, so why would I change the process?” Bassili questions.

This is part of the reason why the menu is limited, offering eight different salmon starters; a range of salads and grilled salmon; shrimps; hammour; sea bass; lamb chops and beef tenderloin from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

“The menu is simple and self-explanatory. I believe that restaurants shouldn’t have elaborate menus that confuse the diner. Why would you want your guest to feel stupid?

“Also, if you have 20 different main courses, how can you produce all these dishes every night and not have any wastage? No, for me, I keep it simple and clean. Sometimes, doing the most simplest of things can be the hardest thing to do,” says Bassili.

But catering to the Dubai market has meant tweaking the menu and food on offer.

Despite offering The Royal and The Semi-Royal, a shared plate featuring a range of different types of salmon, Bassili has introduced a range of sushi, maki and sashimi, as well as a mussels and fries dish on Fridays.

Employing chefs from Asia to help with the creation of the sushi plate, Bassili says that the new items were introduced in order to suit the tastes of the Dubai market.

“We had to look at what the market was like here, and we realised that it was different to Lebanon. For example, the restaurant faces the ski slope so we wanted that young spirit to come through in the menu,” says Bassili.

“The Dubai spirit is younger and a lot more casual, so we have to reflect that, not only in the food on offer, but also with the prices.”

With the majority of dishes ranging from AED45–AED100 (US $12–$27), the food cost currently sits at 45%, however this is due to the company’s ethos of wanting to maintain traditional methods throughout the process.

“We could import smoked salmon and not bother smoking it ourselves in Lebanon, but we want to offer a high quality product,” adds Bassili.||**||

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