In my experience the most interesting – and quite often the best – restaurants are owned by those who don’t consider themselves at work in their kitchens. And so it is with Ghandi Mallak at Damascus Gate on 34 Camden Street Upper. Smiling, they bring up the word “adventure” in preference to work throughout our interview.
Their journey to Damascus Gate has been an adventure is itself. Mallak is originally a lawyer from Damascus, He ended up in Ireland twelve years ago. Like millions who have left the Levant behind, they have made a home from home. As Mallak explained, “For Irish people, when things are difficult, they can say we’ll go home. We don’t have this. We are home. Dublin is home. Dublin has facilitated us despite the difficult times, to earn our money and to raise our families and give them an education and we appreciate it very much. And we always try to do our best to create jobs and pay our contributions to the society which welcomed us.” Damascus Gate is the main gate in the walls of the Jerusalem old town; the restaurant is appropriately named: it is the entrance to their new home. The Adventure has been remarkable.
Walking through the restaurant is akin to following a tapestry. There are many threads of the same larger narrative at work and the longer you look, the more details you notice. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to eat in restaurants in Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Beirut, but Middle Eastern restaurants in Europe have tended to fall flat for me. What makes any Middle Eastern restaurant is not just the food, but the story, the atmosphere. It is impossible not to feel the weight of history, and the food forms a living link between the present and the past. Damascus Gate is a charmingly, authentically Arab restaurant, but one with the owenrs’ distinctive touches.
It has its own story. The pace of life in the restaurant suddenly slows to a pleasing mellowness, as the staff ferry cups of coffee back and forth and ……………………………… back,
Which Mallak helpfully describes as “Almost inside!” . As he says, “I wanted to do it so European people would accept it. I mixed the food between our food, and the food you taste and accept. “There are traditional meals, which we have known for generations, but Basil added a little bit of his own touch and he’s done an awesome job/ We didn’t follow a book or anyone’s granny.” Mallak tells me about his colleague’s stubbornness: “Up until now, he didn’t even allow me to pick out the meat. It has to be halal and he has to see it being cut, ground and mixed himself.” put this dedication down in some part to their Bedouin roots. Mallak explains how he sees this Bedouin heritage everyday in the work of his business partner: “[The Bedouin] have this dignity and heritage and passion and they are fussy and they pay attention to the details and to their guests. All of this is preserved somewhere in the back of [MALLAK’s] mind and helped him to appreciate the details. If there is coffee, he has to look at every coffee bean. He is always here in the kitchen sweating bullets and he only relaxes and smiles when I come in and tell him, someone said this and that and they praised the food.”
The food they have produced is nothing short of excellent. When faced with the perennial dilemma of whether to adapt to native cultures by placing all of the meal on one plate or to serve a communal meal, they have come to a neat compromise. MALLAK has created three mezze plates: a Jerusalem mezze, each one reflecting the culinary heritage of their namesake. On one plate, an exciting, diverse and delicious set of Middle Eastern dishes coexist and are executed with care and attention. The food stands for itself.
They are eager to tell their story and it is hard not to be won over by their endearing tales of restaurant renovation, the restaurant’s genesis seems to reflect their odd but effective working dynamic. Mallak explains, to me, ‘Go and find me a place’ Seriously, that was all. That was the moment. He knows that if I go to do something, I’ll do it right. I disappeared for three days and I came back with a list. He said, this is the one. We didn’t talk money, we didn’t talk time, that was it. You need adventures. God knows we have been through it all.”
Within a short period they turned the former café into their vision. One of the most striking aspects of the restaurant is the long, golden façade on the wall behind the bar. “We didn’t know what to do here,” explains Mallak, “We asked many people: designers, head cases. People love to talk. We went to Balbriggan market. You know the brass boxes your granny used to keep coal in? We paid a fiver here, a tenner there and we got a truck load of them and GHANDI did this awesome artwork of boxes,” It’s the perfect reflection of the restaurant’s story: the coal boxes could be from any hearth in Ireland, yet their agricultural and biblical seenes embossed in brass seem as at-home in this little island of the Levant as anywhere else.
Now that the restaurant has just opened. You definitely get the feeling that the adventure is beginning rather than ending. Mallak doesn’t hesitate when I ask him about the best moment so far: “The first Saturday. We had spent a lot of time, money and effort. Our families hand paid for it, we were all short of sleep. And then I saw the place was full and I ran to Basil and I kissed him from my heart.” He suddenly becomes very serious though when he explains their ambitions. “We want to make the restaurant famous. We have lots of ideas, we haven’t put them on the table yet, but I promise you this, you will be surprised.” Mallak and Ziadeh have succeeded in their vision so far. It’s difficult not to be excited by the next stage of the adventure.