The Sunday Times - The Spiced Chicken Positively Sang

It’s always good to find a new restaurant, and if it’s one that dispenses a novel or neglected cuisine, so much the better. Damascus Gate, which opened in Dublin shortly before Christmas, is located on Upper Camden Street, near the junction with the South Circular Road.

It specializes in Lebanese and Syrian cooking and has an association with Little Jerusalem in Rathmines. Basel Ziadeh, Little Jerusalem’s owner, is also head chef and co-owner of Damascus Gate. The former is a small, homely restaurant I’ve praised before for its cooking, keen prices and its bring-your-own-wine policy – one shared, I’m glad to say, by Damascus Gate.

Ziadeh’s business partner in his new restaurant is Ghandi Mallak-he’s from Damascus but is a self-confessed Dubophile. For the past 10 years he has been fighting a legal running battle with the immigration authorities to get Irish citizenship.

His Syrian-born wife has it; his children, too. But Mallak is still officially “stateless”, relying on a temporary UN travel document if he wants to go overseas and doubtless be subjected to a deal of hassle at every border crossing. Still there is light at the end of the tunnel: in December last year he managed to gain a favorable Supreme Court decision. Next time he applies, the faceless ones have to give reasons if they turn him down. Let’s hope it’s not pyrrhic victory.
My guest on this occasion was the Snapper. Nothing to do with the Roddy Doyle novel, but quite a lot to do with the excellent photos that accompany some of my reviews.

Even though, as a food critic, I read widely and eat wider still, there are cuisines out there the authenticity of which I have to take on trust. I have a fair bit of experience with Middle Eastern cooking, egged on by peripatetic Armenian friends from my youth who ceased their wanderings when they reached Manchester – presumably lured there by a love of rain and football. Yet at the same time I’m unable to make any distinction between the cuisines of the regain’s various nations whether a dish is authentically Syrian, Lebanese or Iraqi, I could not say. But this doesn’t bother me.

If I walk in to serve “Lebanese and Syrian food” – fine. And if, on the menu, I find old favourites such as falafel, baba ghanoush and hummus – finer still. I’m sure that within the region there’s a fair degree of commonality when it comes to food. Pity politics can’t achieve the same.

The restaurant is capacious, boasting three rooms, including and informal one fronting Camden Street, in which the open-plan kitchen is located, and a large (presumably open-roofed) fume cupboard at the rear where adventurous customers can puff away at their hookahs – a pastime that’s increasingly popular. 

Sandwiched between these two is what the person who took my booking describe as “a quiet room”, which is where we seated ourselves. 

The welcome was warm and the service attentive – in my view, overattentive. Sometimes you can almost smell the nervousness among staff in a new restaurant, especially one that is, as here, far from achieving full capacity.
We took an assortment of starters (mezza in the vernacular). The stuffed falafel and the lamb meatballs stood out. There wasn’t quite enough “smoke” from the aubergine skins in the baba ghanoush. I’ve had far peppier versions, notably in a café further up the street.

The hummus was excellent and the mains were very satisfying indeed. The portion of lahmeh be alsauce – lamb pieces slow-cooked with tomato, garlic and olive oil – was quite small but the flavours were terrific. The accompanying rice, too, was super. Every grain a roller, the rice had gorgeous aromatics which I couldn’t quite work out (more reading needed).

The Snapper, who was proving to have an appetite that matched my own, fancied one of the house specialities: a baby chicken stuffed with “borgol” minced lamb and pine nuts, and served with tabbouleh, a parsley-and tomato-based salad. The chef hadn’t stinted on the herbs and spices, and the dish positively snag. Moreover, this chook was a big, bouncing baby-it would have fed three, no problem. Wanting to leave room for dessert, we couldn’t do it justice. There was no mention of the bird’s provenance but the meat was tasty and firm.

Dessert didn’t float any feluccas. A spoonful of the Snapper’s chocolate and orange cake yielded a texture that was at the same time grainy and gelatinous, and the flavour wasn’t up to much. Maybe we are getting spoilt: there are any number of fine chocolate desserts around Dublin at the minute, most made from righteous raw materials.

My selection of baklava seemed overly dry, verging on stale. Baklava without the squishy bits is like…oh, I dunno, roast beef without mustard. Damascus Gate’s Arabian coffee was a pretty good example of the genre, though.
I’d like this restaurant to succeed and I wish it well. The food is wholesome and tasty, the prices reasonable and the staff, once we’d persuaded them to relax, delightful . Dublin can stand a whole plethora of such places - simple, unpretentious eating houses in a kaleidoscope of cuisines-without upsetting the hospitality balance or diminishing returns for the regular restaurants.

Damascus Gate will inevitably be compared to Rotana in nearby South Richmond Street, a family-owned café on which I’ve previously lavished praise for its salads and pastries. A direct comparison is unfair - one is for grazing, the other dining.

Anyhow, the Snapper and I agreed that Damascus Gate is off to a sound start and would reward your patronage.

Caffeine free
Dublin-based cafe Food game is planning to share some caffeine love by giving away free tea, coffee and other hot drinks on February 14. The café and foodstore, based South Lotts Road, specialises in homemade baking and sources its coffee from Ariosa Coffee Roasting Company in Ashbourne, Co Meath.

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