In 1542, Ottoman ruler Süleyman the Magnificent built the Damascus Gate, the most splendid entrance to Jerusalem’s old city. An opening right above the gate was used to pour boiling oil on attackers. Luckily, you don’t have to dodge boiling oil when you step inside Brooklyn’s Damascus Gate, the newest addition to a burgeoning Middle Eastern restaurant scene along Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge. The corner café makes a fetish of the gate, reproducing it on sweatshirts, business cards, and pennants. And while most Middle Eastern restaurants soft-pedal their national origins, offering a crowd-pleasing but predictable roster of pan-regional delicacies like falafel, shish kebab, and baba ghanoush, Damascus Gate enthusiastically features Syria’s special cuisine. Eggplant-wise, in addition to a thick and creamy baba, there’s mtabbal ($4.49), a tahini-free puree whomped with raw garlic, which would set your mouth on fire even without the red Aleppo pepper it contains. More unusual is makdous ($5.99), a very sour pickle of baby eggplants delicately stuffed with walnuts.
Can you fall in love with a cuisine at first bite? I did, when my spoon dipped into fatteh bil lahmeh ($8.99), a thick yogurt porridge served in a giant white bowl, swimming with crunchy toasted pita and tendrils of lamb whacked off the shawarma cylinder. A cloudburst of roasted pignoli that sit on top and slowly sink into the snowy whiteness provides a culinary coup de grâce. This dish is as homestyle as can be, and the cook came out of the kitchen one evening to bring us the porridge herself, maybe curious about the table of eager non-Syrian diners, spoons at the ready, who had ordered it. Three alternate fattehs are offered, the first utilizing chicken instead of lamb and not quite as good. Of the two vegetarian versions, one boasts a finishing ladle of margarine—the ingredient is proudly noted on the menu—ramping up the richness.
The national dish of Syria is kibbeh, familiar to frequenters of Levantine restaurants as a dryish, ocarina-shaped shell of cracked wheat filled with ground meat. But Syrians entertain multiple variations; find them lined up in the glass refrigerator case at Damascus Gate. Sounding like the name of an insurance salesman, kibbeh bil sayniyeh is shaped like a big pie cut into wedges. Best of all is another that doesn’t appear on the menu: kibbeh meshwi ($3.50 each). It’s thrust onto the grill and charred on both sides. When you cut into this beveled hockey puck, out spills an irresistible heap of ground lamb, pine nuts, and onions, subtly inflected with tomato paste.
The menu offers a few fish selections, but the only choice available on our three visits was tilapia kafta kebab, fashioned into an undulating column along a sword. It seemed bland compared to the much tastier ground-lamb kafta, incorporating onions, garlic, peppers, and parsley, served as a pita sandwich ($4.49) or on a platter ($10.99) accompanied by rice ramified with vermicelli, Rice-A-Roni’s undoubted prototype. The accompanying salad, though, was sadly limp from having been dressed earlier in the day.
Always examine the refrigerator cases, where you can find such delicacies as quail, beef tartare, and vegetables stuffed with ground meat. The combination of low prices and amazing food means it’s impossible to leave without being overstuffed. Still, remember to duck your head when you exit to avoid the boiling oil.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 1, 2005