‘Do they have kid’s food?” my three-year-old wants to know on the way to dinner in Dublin’s new Syrian restaurant. this earns him a brisk lecture on the non-existence of “kids’ food”. (Yes I know. Who’d be a restaurant critic’s child?) “Food is food,” I insist. “It will be delicious,” hoping in the name of nugets that I’m right.
Damascus Gate is a bright spot at the shabby end of Upper Camden Street, after a darkended stretch of “development opportunity” buildings, many of which have developed a layer of grime on their peeling wall. The restaurant is in a former cafe and still has a cafe fee at the front.
One of the people behind it is Palestinian restaurateur basil Ziadeh, whose Little Jerusalem in Rathmines is a great spot. His partner is Syrian former lawyer Ghandi Mallak, who won a landmark case on citizenship last month, and works the front of house.
It’s a bring-your-own-bottle place and they don’t charge corkage. Happily Jack Carvill’s, a lovely off-licence, is near. We pile into our table (two smaller tables pushed together) parking scooters, bags and coats alongside us, and the campaign to debunk the notion of kids’ food begins. Towards the rear of the restaurant the Middle Eastern styling increases and the back room is a shisha house where customers can smoke water pipes. A gang of lads looks up when I take a peek so I feel like a teacher who’s just stumbled around the back of the bike shed.
There are lots of typical Middle Eastern staples on the well-priced menu. We think about going for a selection of starters but find that everything we want is on a shared mezze plate.
Liam is having the lamb kibbeh, which is misspelt as kebab on the menu, and I’m trying the lamb special with spiced aubergine, which sounds like a moussaka-type dish. New menus are coming, we’re told.
Flatbreads and two bowls of hummus and baba ganoush arrive to keep us happy as we wait. “I like hummus,” the three-year old shouts, surprising even himself as he lorries it into his mouth on a spoon made of flatbread. We order mansaf dajaj, a chicken dish, for him to share with his six-year old brother. The nine-year old is getting a hummus bellahmeh.
And the three-year old is spot on. His hummus is great and the baba ganoush is terrific, It’s packed with luscious, smoky burnt aubergine flavour and has a lemon tang with a scattering of sumac and pomegranate seeds on the top. There are more of both creamy pastes on the mezze plate along with some tabouleh, which dials up the parsley and tomato elements so that the couscous is almost a sprinkled seasoning rather than the main component.
Spinaeh samosas are made with skin soft pastry envelopes, not like other samosas that explode in pastry shrapnel on first bite expositing a chamber of air with a carpet of wilted spinach. Here the folded spinach has a slight pickled tang, which works brilliantly.
Then there are the kibbeh, which are small rugby ball-shaped portions of minced lamb coated with crisp fried bulgar wheat crumbs, a little like a scotch egg. Drizzled in garlic yoghurt they are sweetly spicy and the smallest fella loves them.
The chicken mansaf dajaj comes as a leg and thigh joint of soft meat that falls away from the bone and tastes like it’s been poached. There is saffron rice and a great sprinkling of toasted nuts, cashews, brazils and peanuts. In a bowl there’s a sunny yellow portion of warm yoghurt soup which sings with the rice.
The hummus starter that the eldest boy gets is a great combination of crunchy, fried minced lamb (like the best crunchy outside bits of a burger) sprinkled over a smooth chickpea paste with more of those toasted nuts.
The only slight disappointment is my lamb dish, which is a little chewy and under-spiced and doesn’t work in the way that the other dishes do.
Desserts are delightful. The house made baklava are sweet and nutty, rather than sickly syrupy, with hits of pistachio and rosewater. A slice of knafeh is gorgeous, almost savoury, with an after sweetness when the syrup-soaked wheat gives up its flavour. It’s made from a thin layer of unsalted cream cheese topped with a wheat vermicelli (very like Shredded Wheat) turned pink with rosewater and syrup. Tow of the chefs are from the city of Nablus, the home of this dessert, we’re told.
Unprompted, the youngest asks if we can come here every night as we try to finish everything. We’re adding it to our short list of family venues, but don’t let that put you off. Damascus Gate is a great addition to Camden Street, not least because it proves my point, food is food and here it’s delicious.
Dinner for five with tap water and soft drinks came to €78.85.
Damascus Gate, 10 Upper Camden St, Dublin 2, tel : 01-4752000