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.
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.
Each entree came with more hummus, as well as a mound of rice, tomato-cucumber salad and yogurt sauce. After all that, I was ready to call it quits, but the college guys insisted that Damascus makes great baklava ($1.75 each). Right again. Not the gooey, honey-drenched, butter-slicked Greek version, Damascus's baklava boasted a top section of fillo that took up two-thirds of the stack and was more like puff pastry, since it had been only thinly coated with butter and lightly sprinkled with minced pistachios. The bottom third was the section that contained nuts and rose-water-injected sugar syrup. And since this take on the pastry wasn't overwhelmingly sweet, we could eat more of it.
But then, I seem to eat more--and more--of all of Damascus's dishes. I can never get enough of that hummus, and on another visit, I ate more baba ghanouj ($3.95) than I would have thought possible. The eggplant spread was ultra-pureed and had the sharp taste that grilling gives eggplant. (I wonder if the food processor, which has been such a boon to cooks in this country, has made it big in the Middle East yet, replacing the traditional mortar and pestle that make grinding a large quantity of anything akin to rowing a boat from one end of the Mediterranean to another.) In addition, the spread included garlic, lemon juice, enough tahini to lend a rich, deep taste, and the ideal amount of salt, which is crucial for bringing up the eggplant flavor and counteracting the lemon. We scraped up the baba ghanouj not just with our pita bread, but also with the doughy ends of the cheese pie ($1.45) and the spinach pie ($1.45), two small boats of bread curled around fillings of herbed yogurt cheese in one case and chopped spinach with walnuts and the sour bite of pomegranate juice in the other.
More baba ghanouj and more hummus came with the vegetarian combo ($7.75), which also featured a tabouleh that was light on the fine-grade bulgur and heavy on the parsley, with tiny bits of that pink pickled turnip prettying it up and adding a nice sour note. The veggie platter also held falafel; rice (Damascus always bolsters its rice with browned bits of vermicelli); grape leaves stuffed with allspice-sparked rice; and a fabulous fattoush: toasted khoubiz (flat bread) tossed with diced cucumbers and tomatoes, chopped scallions, parsley and mint. This fattoush had a sweet freshness I hadn't found in other versions, which usually suffer from bitter cucumber. We'd also ordered a meat combo ($9.25), which included delectable chicken kabab, moist, oniony kafta kabab, cubed lamb and beef kabab and shreds of shawarma, all of which had been expertly charbroiled.
In addition to the fine baklava, we ordered the nammura ($1.75), a dense, hard cake with a sweet base, and the kanafah ($2), which I've also seen spelled k'nafi. Either way, this was a delicious pastry of mizithra cheese combined with lemon and sugar, topped with the hairy strands of kataifi pastry dough and baked. The sweetness of the confection held up well against Damascus's fresh-squeezed, super-sour lemonade ($2.25), another strong recommendation from a fellow diner. (Kassir is a strict Muslim, so no alcohol is served at Damascus.) That diner was an American Muslim convert from Iowa who was there with her Kuwaiti husband, his mother and brothers and their children, one of whom wound up sitting at our table because she and my daughters were having a grand old time ignoring cultural differences. ("Why doesn't your mother cover her head?" the girl asked, in a way that made me wonder if it was more of a commentary on my new haircut than a religious query.)
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Meanwhile, her aunt was whispering recipes for cheese pie in my ear while I asked her prying questions about her new life as an oppressed woman. "Yeah, but I get to eat this food all the time," she said, laughing.
Yeah, but so do I--as long as I dine at Damascus.
Damascus, 2276 South Colorado Boulevard, 757-3515. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Saturday.