In a certain respect, chef Mirna Attar’s recollection of the Lebanese Civil War is an atypical one — the traumatic time actually holds some happy memories of gathering, cooking, and eating. Amid the conflict, she and her family retreated to a small village in the mountains to hide out with their extended family, which she recalls feeling like a big sleepover. Ultimately, Attar and her immediate family fled Lebanon for the United States, immigrating to Portland in 1983. She opened Ya Hala in 1999 with her husband John Attar.
At the Montavilla restaurant, Attar has spent 24 years cooking Lebanese dishes like baba ganoush, kafta kabobs, and tabbouleh, beginning at a time when Lebanese restaurants were scarce in the city. Forty years after leaving her homeland, she is encapsulating the memories of her youth in a new prix fixe menu served within a dedicated space at Ya Hala. At the Fairuz Room, which is named after the beloved Lebanese singer, Attar has created an experience that represents her journey as an immigrant and the feeling of existing between two countries.
The three-course dinner includes rotating dishes that meld Attar’s memories of Lebanon with Pacific Northwestern ingredients, like kishk soup with black garlic toast, asparagus moussaka, and beef shanks with Swiss chard kibbeh. The menu also draws inspiration from the home cooking of Lebanon’s various regions and Fairuz’s music, a comfort that Attar was able to carry over with her to the U.S.
“This menu has a lightness to it; very much like Fairuz’s voice, which is delicate and very flexible,” says Attar’s daughter Maya Massad. “Her music was about the pleasures of living in small villages in the mountains — the little things like the smell of jasmine, the nightingales, drunken neighbors, or windy bus rides through the mountains.”
The family-style prix fixe starts off with bread fresh from the oven and roasted nuts, which are a sign of hospitality in Lebanon. From there, Attar paces out the courses, and her staff talks diners through each dish. Along with its special menu, the Fairuz Room also offers Lebanese wines and cocktails, like sour cherry Negronis, which aren’t available in Ya Hala’s main dining room.
The space itself also takes design cues from Fairuz, but also channels the atmosphere of a Lebanese home — vintage movie posters from Fairuz’s heyday in the 1960s-1970s hang on the walls, and the textiles that adorn the room are inspired by the icon’s wardrobe. A big couch sits in the middle of the room, which is meant to make diners feel at home. But the furniture also holds a deeper cultural significance: “When you go to village homes in Lebanon, there’s always upholstered furniture in the kitchen,” says Massad. “Which seems really odd at first, but then you notice it’s because people are spending the entire day in the kitchen; slow cooking and relaxing and drinking — the kitchen is really the living room.”
The Fairuz Room is open for dinner on Fridays within Ya Hala at 8005 SE Stark Street.