Ottawa has long been home to a vibrant Lebanese diaspora (our only real competition for shawarma capital of the universe is often said to be Beirut itself). It’s what Donald Batal, owner of Le Suq, seems to be hinting at this when he explains, when it came time to launch a new food concept in North America, Ottawa was up there with the big cities — Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York.
But he chose here, in Ottawa, with plans to expand from Canada instead of into it, as is so often the case.
“The energy in Canada for food, is totally different,” Batal says. “It’s more zen, for me.”
Le Suq is a small group of new grocery markets and cafes, selling ingredients near and dear to Levantine cuisine found in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and so on.
Over the summer Batal has launched two Le Suq locations: one in Beechwood, the other on Preston Street. He launched a third, cousin store in Westboro, called Noor, and Batal seems to have all the bases covered -- a cafe, a lunch spot, a craft market, a grocery, all rolled into one renaissance concept, one whose slippery definition and changing function makes it both enigmatic and a lot of fun.
Batal came to Canada last year, after launching a string of successful burger restaurants in Lebanon.
The idea, at first, was to simply launch another of his restaurants in Ottawa, but COVID-19 had other plans. Just as Le Suq was inching towards opening as a street food and cafe concept, the food service industry came to a screeching halt. Cooking moved inside the home, and Le Suq pivoted towards being more of a market.
“Le Suq is an experience,” Batal says. “It’s not a cafe. It’s not a grocery store. It’s an experience.”
If you’re lucky, that experience intersects with Batal himself, an obvious lover of coffee and filled with boundless enthusiasm partly because of it. Cross paths with him in Le Suq, and you might find him with a handful of cabbage microgreens being held out for you — “do you want to taste?” — or some thoughts on how you might be cooking your halloumi wrong, or what to put in your labneh, or any number of other conversation topics meant to open you up to a more dynamic and authentic version of Levantine cuisine than you might get at your local shawarma shop. (He will not, however, reveal which country he believes makes the best hummus.)
Cross-cultural contact is in the store’s DNA.
“Le Suq is not to serve Arab people here,” Batal explains, darting around the small Preston Street location. By which he means, his self-styled mission isn’t to bring Levantine ingredients to those who might miss it from back home, but to showcase them for a North American palate. It’s about education and celebration at the same time — and if it will convert someone away from pre-packaged hummus then, well, that’s a win.
“The demand for this cuisine is growing,” Batal says.
Upstairs, in a room above the grocery store that Batal plans to convert into cafe seating, eventually, he has set up rooms full of art and crafts, all sourced from local artists and craftspeople.
“We partner up with a lot of local producers,” he says. “And we try to connect with the local community.”
Almost all of the things he sells, he says, come from Canadian producers; he doesn’t seem to want to import Levantine cuisine so much as help grow it here, in the community.
And he’s all about the little local flourishes; in the Little Italy store, a selection of boutique Italian products, for instance.
“We adapt each store to the neighbourhood,” Batal says. Nothing is cookie-cutter, and everything about the store seems to defy traditional categories.
Emerging out of the COVID lockdown, the stores are still in a kind of protracted soft-open state. Batal says there are plans for a more elaborate grand opening in the future — and stretch plans, years away, that will include Batal’s take on the classic Ottawa shawarma — but for now, the doors are open, the smell of the spices is everywhere, and the coffee is, as always, pouring freely.