Day 51: Syria
Unfortunately, my illness has gotten significantly worse. My head feels like an enormous storm cloud smushed down in an air compressor to the size of a pea. My throat hurts, my nose won’t stop running and my mouth is perpetually dry. But for the moment, those are simply things that make it much more difficult for me to accurately recall the events of yesterday, when my Personal Food Project in Blog Form began in a very strange way. After writing the morning post, I drove up to Pasadena to to be interviewed by Patt Morrison on KPCC. It all came about because their producer’s wife is a regular Chowhound reader, heard about the site through them and went on to tell her husband about it. He contacted me on Wednesday, and on Friday, I was on my way to the radio station. But not before my mother loaded me up with non drowsy decongestants and cough suppressants. I was on for about the last 20 minutes of the show and it was a lot of fun. People called in with restaurant recommendations, Patt asked some interesting questions and I tried not to cough or blow my nose while I was on the air. Per my requirements, I had to have at least one screw up and this time that meant saying that the great French restaurant I visited, Tradition By Pascal, is in Laguna Beach, when it’s actually in Newport Beach. But you can’t get them all right, I guess.
A couple of hours after getting home, my five year old brother, Super Jake, is dropped off at my house by the babysitter as he’s joining me tonight for Syrian food while my dad and stepmom have their anniversary dinner. So we head over to Sham in Santa Monica, CA and get ready to try something new. A lot of Syrian food is its own twist on many popular Middle Eastern dishes, such as hummus, baba ghannough and falafel. But I want to try some other things. We sit down in the restaurant which may very well be traditionally decorated, but looks like a 1940s Hollywood set for a café in “Persia”, complete with decorative hookahs and arched doorways. We an order entrée as well as their “sampler plate” which allows you to choose five side dishes, offering a nice opportunity for some variety. I sip mint tea in the near empty restaurant as our very pleasant and oddly humble server brings out the dishes. Two large, freshly baked flat breads come out with a wide array of Syrian goods (Super Jake: “I like this bread.”). Kibbeh, a stuffed ball of fried wheat, is like a meat lover’s version of falafel (“This is really yummy.”). A crispy crust, followed by a soft layer, followed by ground beef, pine nuts and onions is a delicate take on fried food and really comes together with a dip in the tart yogurt sauce.
Fattoush, (“I like it and I don’t like it.”) a mint flecked salad with a lot of citrus, basically tastes like what would happen if you took an ordinary steak joint’s house salad, then added diced fried bread and seasoned it aggressively with bright Middle Eastern ingredients. Spinach fattayer (“This is good.”), a baked bread dish with a consistency similar to a butter cookie, but with spinach, walnuts, onions and pomegranate stuffed inside, is like an impressively tart pastry. Tartness, in fact, is becoming a running theme in the meal. From the salad to the fattayer to even the much more subtly tart mousakah (“I don’t like this.”), a stewed eggplant and tomato dish which veers from the more composed, lasagna-like version found in Greece, the restaurant proves that tartness, of varying degrees, can be a dominant part of an entire meal. The sole exception is the gentle, muted lentil dish, which offers a slight vacation from the stronger flavors when your mouth needs it.
Then the crown jewel of the evening arrives, taking every component set up previously and combining it into one dish: molokheya(“This is yucky.”). Green and extremely tart molokheya leaves (a popular green in Asia and the Middle East), cooked in lamb stock and topped with pieces of lamb so tender that you could honestly eat it without teeth. Served with a side of rice, it’s a complete experience all by itself. For those afraid of tart or aggressive greens, this may not be the dish for you. Eventually, all of the components from the different dishes combine to create a frenetic and surprising roulette wheel of flavors in every bite. But the night must come to a close and it’s time for Super Jake to go to bed. With the meal behind us, I realize I’m extremely happy to have tried this cuisine. Now I’d love to offer a poignant summation of the the events that have transpired, but I’m amazed that I even made it this far. This cold is doing a number on me and I’m having trouble deciding which country might do me the most good tomorrow. Do they eat matzoh ball soup in Israel?
The interview with Patt Morrison can be found at kpcc.org or by downloading the Patt Morrison podcast on itunes.
716 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Food Breakdown: 1 non-alcoholic beverages, 5 appetizer sampler, 1 entrée
Distance From My House: 6.9 miles