The walls at Damascus Gate restaurant, 807 W. Historic Mitchell St., are covered with beautiful photographs of Syria, all of which were taken before the ravaging effects of the Syrian Civil War.
Among them is a photograph of the Umayyad Mosque (the Grand Mosque of Damascus), the oldest surviving stone mosque in the world and a site used by both Syrian Christians and Muslims as a place of prayer.
It’s a beautiful historic site, and it’s a reminder of the hope and unity found among the Syrian people. But it's also an apt symbol for Damascus Gate, a Syrian restaurant born of hope, generosity and resilience.
A restaurant built on hope
Syrian native Ahmad Nasef came to the United States in the 1990s to pursue his career in medicine. He married and had children. For years he worked as the clinical director for the Froedtert Sleep Lab before branching off on his own to open the Quality Sleep Institute.
But as he met with success, he never forgot the homeland he left behind. As the Syrian Civial War began, he volunteered his time as a physician, traveling to Turkey to volunteer in refugee camps and gathering together with friends and colleagues to raise funds to assist refugees.
"I’ve done well for myself," Nasef says. "I am blessed. So I felt it was my responsibility to do something good with my life."
Among the Syrians he met along the way was Abdul Abadeh, an assistant architectural engineer who’d fled the country with his wife Rahim Silan and their young children, traveling first to Saudi Arabia and then emigrating to the U.S. When Nasef first spoke with them, they were living in Flint, Michigan; but they needed help.
"I offered to help them in whatever way I could," he says. "To thank me, Rahim brought me cheese pies … spinach pies … her food was delicious ... the best I’ve ever had. And I said to her: ‘Why are you staying in Michigan where there is no water to drink? Move to Milwaukee. I’ll help you."
The couple agreed. From there, Ahmad funded their move to Milwaukee and co-signed for a rental property where they could live. He also started a fund, which he planned to use to assist them in opening a restaurant.
Last spring he took steps to purchase a foreclosed property at 3060 S.13th St.; but when the site needed renovations that exceeded his budget, he says the project stalled. Fortunately, he says, he learned of the restaurant on Historic Mitchell Street, which had closed down after only a week in business. He spoke with one of the owners of the business, settling on a deal that allowed him to assume the restaurant’s food license.
Nasef says there are ten people employed by the restaurant including a number of Somali and Syrian refugees. Among them is Abdul Abadeh and Rahim Silan; Nawal Mutlak, a refugee who spent time at a camp in Jordan before coming to the U.S. with her husband and three sons in 2016; and Asma Dasan, a refugee from Jerusalem who came to the U.S. as a child and has assumed an activistic role in the refugee community.
A taste of Syria
Scan the menu at Damascus Gate and you’ll see a variety of familiar looking Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes: falafel, hummus, lentil soup and fattoush salad. But if you look deeper, you’ll also find the distinctive flavors of Syria, a country whose rich, diverse cuisine has been forged and blended through years of conquests, migrations and trade.
Staples in the cuisine are ingredients like eggplant, lamb, chickpeas and bulgur (cracked wheat), common to the cuisines of Jordan, Palestine and Egypt; but Syrian fare is distinguished by both technique and liberal use of spices (think: black pepper, allspice, sumac, cassia bark, coriander, cumin and cardamom), herbs like parsley and mint, and condiments like olive oil and pomegranate molasses.
At Damascus Gate, the dishes are made from scratch by owners Abdul Abadeh, Rahim Silan (pictured with Asma Dasan) and Nawal Mutlak with assistance from seven other Somali and Syrian refugees.
On a mixed appetizer plate, you’ll find staples like hummus and baba ghanouj, fragrant tabbouleh salad made with parsley, mint and lemon juice and just a hint of cracked wheat.
There’s also moussaka (top), which resembles its Greek counterpart in name only. It’s a simple dish, served at room temperature, which consists of mashed fried eggplant, tomatoes, onions and fragrant spices.
Kibbeh (pictured in center) is handmade with cracked wheat, ground beef, nuts and seasonings and represents just one of 20 types made throughout Syria, including sfrjaliea, a style of kibbeh that incorporates fruit.
Delicious cheese pies are made with hand-made dough that’s filled with cheese, parsley and black sesame seeds. Spinach pies are filled with spinach, onions and peppers and seasoned with the tang of pomegranate molasses ($1 each).
Don’t miss the yalanji, rice and vegetables cooked with tomato, parsley onion and lemon, hand rolled in grape leaves and drizzled with tangy pomegranate molasses (six pieces for $4.99).
Meanwhile, a mixed grill platter showcases kefta, a kebab made with beef and lamb and seasoned with parsley, onion and a special tomato paste found only in Damascus. There’s also chicken, marinated for two days in citrus and spices before being charcoal grilled. Both are served alongside fragrant rice that’s studded with raisins and fragrant with clove.
Other items include lentil soup ($3.99), falafel ($3.99 for six pieces/$6.49 for 12) and desserts like muhalaya (spiced rice pudding, $1.99) and k’nafa, a pistachio pastry soaked with syrup ($2.99). The restaurant kitchen came complete with a pizza oven, so the menu also includes simple cheese, vegetable and pepperoni pizzas ($8.99-$11.99).
Salin and Mutlak note that, as the restaurant gains footing, they’d like to incorporate additional Syrian dishes to the menu, including stuffed eggplant, stuffed zucchini and lamb dishes, including a specialty made with lamb’s hooves.
"I’d like to make kibbeh cooked in yogurt sauce," says Salin. "It’s so good and tasty and people love it."
Just getting started
Damascus Gate opened its doors for the first time on Friday, Jan. 4. The response was astounding.
"We had over 500 people come the first day," he says. "And more the next day. We thought we had enough food to last us for the first week. But we were sold out by 6 p.m. on Saturday."
Nasef says the support they’ve seen has been encouraging, but they’ll need to attract regular customers to make the business sustainable.
"All of these things take time," he says, noting that they’re still working out a number of operational details for the restaurant. "We have to walk before we start running. But we are very excited."
Salim says she is happy in Wisconsin and excited for the new restaurant.
"We really like how people treat us here; we feel very welcome," says Salim, a bright smile spreading across her face. "I want people when they walk in to feel as if they have come to my home. This is the only Syrian kitchen in the entire state. Our motivation is to share our culture and the welcoming nature of our people with Milwaukee."
Nasef says he’s pleased to be able to have the resources to help the families establish a sustainable income as they settle into their new lives in the U.S.
"People from Syria have seen and experienced so much," says Nasef. "And yet, they have so much hope in their hearts… you simply cannot take that away."
Damascus Gate is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.