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Although Middle Eastern communities fight over everything from politics to religion, the similarity of their cuisines shows they at least agree on something. Yoghurt is yaourti is madzoon is yurt; parsley is bakdounis is azadegh is jafari is maydanoz--the names differ, but it's the same ingredient whether you're from Armenia, Turkey, Iran or Lebanon. Still, don't ever argue with someone from Turkey over which country's baklawa is best: While the basic ingredients are the same, each Middle Eastern region has a distinctive way--the best way or the worst way, depending upon whom you're talking to--of putting them together into regional specialties.
To find out how Syrians do it, take a trip to Damascus, an eight-year-old eatery in the tiny Middle Eastern plaza that also houses Kabob House and a wonderful, badly lit, jam-packed Middle Eastern market whose owner sometimes gives little kids slabs of imported sesame-seed candy. What really drives Damascus's Middle Eastern atmosphere home, however, is the constant hum of dialects from all around the Mediterranean (and beyond); dining here, I've met customers from Kuwait, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, Yemen, Afghanistan, London and Iowa. Through the sheer quality of his food, owner Mahmoud Kassir has managed to transcend cultural differences.
Over the past few years, he's also improved Damascus's dining room until it was a fit setting for his delicious food. No longer is the space a dingy dive. Instead, the ceiling is covered with striped Turkish blankets from which hang beaded lamps, the walls are decorated with posters of Syria, and a collection of brass items adds a homey touch. And while the place is still small, it's cozy--and the close quarters are conducive to conversation. Since it takes time to cook things from scratch, as most of Damascus's dishes are, it's nice to be able to pass that time chatting with the diverse diners who show up about five minutes after the place opens for business and keep coming through the day.
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The wait is made even more pleasant by Damascus's homemade pitas, just-baked bread with the warm flavor and aroma of a high-class pastry but as light and airy as freshly laundered sheets. As far as I know, Damascus is the only eatery in town that goes to the trouble of making its own pitas. You get a basket of them almost as soon as you're seated, along with a small plate of hummus--the Middle Eastern equivalent of chips and salsa. The hummus, too, has always been heavenly: smooth as baby food, with a nice lemon kick and enough garlic to create a presence--but not so much that you'll taste it for the rest of the day. A dash each of paprika and ground cumin, along with chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil, pump up the visual appeal.
One recent evening we alternated bites of hummus-laden pita with conversational tidbits from a nearby table of students from various parts of the Middle East--every one of whom confessed to never wanting to leave Denver. We put all talk on hold, though, to devote our full attention to an order of four cabbage rolls ($3.95). These bundles were much prettier than your typical package deals wrapped in translucent cabbage that looks like some dead person's skin; they were a bright, healthy green, sprinkled enticingly with dried mint, and they tasted as good as they looked. At one point the cabbage leaves must have been parboiled, but somehow they'd retained not just their color but their pungency; they held a tasty mix of rice and seasoned ground lamb, with cumin and allspice the dominant seasonings. We paired the rolls with a quail ($4.95) that had been marinated in lemon and garlic--maybe rubbed, stuffed and smeared with them, too, considering the marvelous intensity--before being charbroiled into a crispy-shelled delicacy. A little plate of "side pickles" ($2.75)--sour house-pickled cucumbers, fluorescent-pink pickled turnips and meaty olives--was the perfect foil for these two strongly flavored dishes.
By the time we'd finished this first course, we'd moved our table right alongside the party of college kids. Not only did this make conversation easier, but it meant we could try three times as many entrees. We liked them all: moist, tender lamb shank ($9.75) in a thick sauce of garlic and tomatoes; falafel ($6.95 for a plate of five) that was no boxed mix, but a well-melded mash of chickpeas and fava beans with onion, garlic, coriander and cumin formed into patties and deep-fried dark brown; lamb and beef shawarma ($7.95) with all the classic qualities of the spit-broiled meats known as doner kebap in Turkey and as gyros in Greece; and my personal favorite, the Syrian sausage ($7.45), made by grinding up lamb and beef with pine nuts--snoober in Arabic--garlic and cumin, then forming the mix into flat balls and broiling them. (In these parts, most people think the pinon is the same as a pine nut, but it's not. The tear-shaped pinon comes from pines native to the northern and western regions of this country, while the Mediterranean pine nut, or pignola, is thin and evenly oblong; it's a little oilier and takes longer to toast.)
One of the students had sold us on ordering the lamb chops ($9.95), and we weren't sorry. A baby rack of four lemon-tangy ribs of lamb had been pelted with herbs and spices, then broiled into juice-spurting tenderness. And then there was the kibbeh, or kibbi naia ($3.95). Freshly ground lamb had been kneaded to a perfect paste with cracked wheat (what we call bulgur, or burghul in Arabic), onions, allspice, coriander and maybe a hint of cinnamon, as there was a faint trace of something sweet that we couldn't identify. The measure of an Arabic cook is often his kibbeh; Kassir's was exceptional.