Last Saturday night my girlfriend and I headed out to dinner at Damas with another couple. After a ridiculous 2o minute search for a parking spot in the Mile End (note to self: take a cab next time), we settled into the cozy restaurant and ordered a round of much needed drinks (mine was a very refreshing “Fuad’s Tonic”, made with Hendrick’s gin, cucumber, lime, mint and tonic) and appetizers. I had heard good things about Damas, so I had high expectations…
(Note: my BlackBerry was not up to the task of taking quality pictures in the dimly lit dining room and I didn’t want to use the flash, so the pictures in this post are from one of my fellow diners who had been to Damas before. I have also provided two links to images on Damas’ Facebook page.)
First up was fattouch salad. I always like fattouch and this was one of the more intensely flavoured editions that I have had – the sharpness of the garlic and lemon really woke up my taste buds, foreshadowing what was to come. It wasn’t perfect though, I thought there was a bit too much vinegar in the dressing and a bit too much dressing overall which led to some sogginess. Luckily the crunchy fried pita was there to balance things out and the salad did not suffer too much overall.
The hummus with spicy minced lamb, roasted garlic and pine nuts was next. The dish features smooth, flavourful hummus topped with little bits of even more flavourful lamb to be scooped and scarfed with the accompanying pita. The combination worked brilliantly and this dish did not last long at the table. Sure, hummus could be seen as a pretty simple dish, but this one was impressive – one of the best that I have had.
Next was the kibbeh. There was a little confusion here. I ordered “kibbeh” and was thinking of the kibbeh nayyeh (i.e. the raw version) but the plate that arrived at the table was the fried version. One of my fellow diners (who happens to be Syrian) pointed out that asking for just “kibbeh” typically means you want the fried one. So it was probably my bad (although the waiter could have also asked), but when the plate arrived and I pointed out the mixup there was no discussion of who was right and who was wrong. They apologized, let us keep the dish and brought us the kibbeh nayyeh as well (much appreciated). So, I ended up trying both.
The kibbeh nayyeh is an ultra smooth blend of beef and bulgur, served with oil and raw onions. This was my first experience and as a huge fan of beef tartare I thought I would love it. Unfortunately this was not the case, the texture (very much like ground meat, since it is) just didn’t do it for me and I thought it lacked a bit of flavour. This is not a knock on the dish though, it just seems that I am not a kibbeh nayyeh kind of guy (our resident expert thought this was actually a very good rendition). I liked the fried version better, as the cooking process brought out more of the flavour of the meat. The accompanying yogurt sauce was also delicious.
Already impressed by the appetizers I was eager to see what the mains would bring to the table. I ordered the Lamb Friki and my girlfriend ordered the Fattet Makdous. They did not disappoint.
The Lamb Friki is a braised lamb shank served on a bed of smoked Syrian wheat, pistachios, raisins and grilled almonds accompanied by a yogurt sauce (click here for a picture from Damas’ Facebook page). The lamb was one of the most tender pieces of meat I have ever eaten – the epitome of fall off the bone. I was provided with a knife but it wasn’t necessary, you could have eaten the whole thing with a plastic spoon. The lamb was nicely seasoned and tasty on its own, so it took me a few bites before I realized that pouring the yogurt sauce over it made it even better. The savoury lamb, tart yogurt, sweet fruit and nutty wheat came together beautifully. This was a great dish.
As good as the Lamb Friki was, the Fattet Makdous was even better. Fattet is a traditional Damascan dish made up of layers of fried pita, yogurt tahini sauce, pistachios, pine nuts, herbs and clarified butter. The Makdous version includes fried mini eggplants stuffed with lamb and a tomato and pomegranate sauce (click here for a picture from Damas’ Facebook page). Perhaps not the most elegant description, but what came to mind was nachos on steroids, Syrian style. This dish was no joke. The combination of flavours (salty lamb, sweet tomato and pomegranate and garlicky tart yogurt tahini) and textures (crispy fried pita, soft eggplant and creamy sauce) was special. Luckily the portions are large and my girlfriend is small, so she had to tap out about 2/3 of the way through the plate. After finishing my lamb friki I promptly devoured the rest of her meal, sending myself into a supreme contentment induced food coma of sorts. Seriously, this is one of the best dishes that I have come across in a long time; completely out of control.
We enjoyed our meal with a bottle of red wine from Corsica (my first Corsican wine) selected from the varied wine list. Only a bold and full bodied wine could hang with these flavours, and this one did the trick.
There was no need for dessert, but we ordered some anyways. The Halawet el-jebn (cheese and semolina rolls stuffed with cream, covered in orange blossom syrup and topped with pistachios) were my favourite, but truth be told I was more focused on sipping my black tea (with saffron and cardamom) and reflecting on the amazing experience that I had just had.
If I’m being honest, the service was a bit uneven, but I’m not going to dwell on that or hold it against Damas. Not all waiters are created equal and things like that happen sometimes (my Syrian friend has been on a few occasions and assured me that this was a particular situation). If the food hadn’t been so good I might have been bothered but everything was more than worth the wait and once I tasted that Fattet Makdous everything was right in the world. Damas is now one of my favourite restaurants. If you haven’t gone yet, put it on your list.
Price: $140 + tip for two with wine and drinks (you can see the menu on their website for exact prices).
Rating: 4 – Out of control.