By Patricia Wersinger
Photo Credit Shanna Ravindra
|Nothing evokes the summer to me as much as Middle Eastern Cuisine. With its pungent aromas of spices, herbs and assortments of small dishes it is the perfect light fare to withstand horrid temperatures. All the images on my TV set this spring about the unrest in the Arab world have conjured dreams of sipping tea at a terrace in Beirut, known to travelers as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Strolling down a market street in Cairo and tasting exotic spices in a Damascus restaurant. All pipe dreams, alas, at least while the unrest lasts. However, there exist in New York little jewels of restaurants that can be the second best thing to experiencing the culture in its own environment. Indeed I found out that you can go to Damascus, “the most ancient city in the world,” right here in Manhattan without leaving home.|
The place I am talking about is Salam Café and Restaurant in the West Village. An unassuming neighborhood restaurant right off 6th avenue, I would almost have not looked twice at its modest storefront if someone had not recommended it to me.
Visiting Salam is much more than just going to dinner. So many Middle Eastern restaurants offer food in an uninspired, western décor, but nothing is less true at Salam, where the interior exhibits decorative touches that conjure everything you might have found so appealing in travel brochures about the region. Stepping down into the restaurant is like entering a wine cave. The front room is designed like a house terrace with the minimal light of beaded votive holders and an intimate yet spacious feeling.
Two other galleries follow. The middle room evokes the inviting boudoir of some traditional Arab home with mirrors, embroidered tapestries and silk fabrics on the walls. You would not be surprised if some characters from the Arabian Nights came drifting by and started greeting you which is what it feels like when the Maitre d’ arrives sporting an ethnic jacket with black pants and the typical warmth of a true Mediterranean native.
Photo Credit Shanna Ravindra
Eating in the Middle East is not as structured as it is in the West. Meals do not have several courses but are often composed of a series of appetizers or many side dishes adding on to a main one. This is perfect for me who just likes to nibble on food when it is hot. Eating as a form of play and enjoyment over conversation. My girl friends and I ordered an assortment of Syrian meze. Almost immediately groups of small dishes arrived that we all shared. First, olives, tahini with olive oil, grape leaves, baba ghanoush then fattoush ( a peasant salad of toasted pitta bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, chickweed and mint) followed by tabbouleh, (diced parsley salad with bulghur cereal, tomato and mint), halloumi cheese, lamb merguez, and then ouzi, (a phyllo pie filled with rice, raisins and a choice of chicken or lamb). We opened a bottle of Algerian red wine, the perfect accompaniment to bring out the exotic flavors of a Syrian meze on a hot night. At the end, we had mint sweet tea and delicious pastries. That copious meal was a feast. It was also extremely relaxing as the service at Salam is very courteous and discreet. You feel encouraged to stay as long as you feel like it and take your time. The waiter will answer any questions about the food or his culture with friendliness and humor. These are Mediterranean people after all, who for centuries have set the standards for hospitality and enjoyment at the table before every one else, including the French and Italian, imitated them.
After dinner, I went to say hello to the owners Joan and Bassam Omary who were busy in the kitchen. Not surprisingly I learned that Salam is in its 28th year of existence, not a small feat in New York’s competitive restaurant market and a proof of its talent at creating authentic enjoyment. You feel at home at Salam and yet far away. It is not by chance that Salam is a greeting meaning “peace” in Arabic. You leave the restaurant feeling as if you have met new friends. The wonderful flavors of the cuisine, the exotic allure of the surroundings and the care of the staff certainly call for many more visits.
Salam Café and Restaurant
104 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village