Al Khawali Restaurant, Damascus



I just came back from two weeks break in Syria. I was planning lots of food research and stories and even a culinary trip to Aleppo. Instead I spent the majority of my time running from the Court House to the Ministry of Health to the Civil Registry offices trying to sort out paper work and chase a signature here and a signature there. Like the good old days.

One thing I managed to do though is a visit to
Al Khawali Restaurant. There is a general consensus of the Syrian on line community and tourists that this restaurant is the best in Damascus. I never tried the place so I decided it is about time to give it a go. I headed there with my wife and family on a week day lunch. A seven of us.

You couldn't have picked a better setting for an Old City restaurant. The place is located mid way down
Street Called Straight from the Bible (Via Recta or Medhat Basha Street as it is known today). It is the same street Ananais walked down to find the blind St Paul to baptise him and give him back his vision.




The restaurant is located in a beautiful restored old house with a great covered court yard that serves as the main dining hall. You enter the dining room through the VIP hall, a wood covered room with traditional Mosaic Damascene furniture. The walls are full of pictures of the great and famous who dined in the restaurant from Gloria Arroyo the Philippines president, John Kerry US presidential candidate, Joshka Fischer German Foreign Minister to many singers, actors and other famous media personalities.

The menu was a bit disappointing. It was a mixed affair of the usual Mezze/grilled meat combo and characterless western dishes. What brought my attention back was the Oriental main dishes section which included few authentic Damascene dishes that you rarely see on restaurant menu. We ended up ordering two dishes from that section.

We started with few mezze dishes to share Hummus, Mutabal, Baba Ghanoush, Fried and grilled Kibbeh and Kibbeh nayeh (raw kibbeh). We also tried Al Khwali hummus which is an interesting combination of hummus, cumin and sun-dried red peppers paste. All the mezzeh dishes were excellent. The only glitch was the hard Bulgur granules in the raw kibbeh dish. They needed to be soaked in water a bit longer.




The salads were equally good. We ordered rocket salad, fatoush and my dad favourite, lettuce hearts with Roquefort cheese dressing. Not a Syrian salad but very popular in Damascus it is on every restaurant menu.

Between the seven of us we ordered six main dishes; mixed grill, shish tawook, lamb chops, chef special of chicken in creamy za'atar sauce, basmashkat and stuffed vine leaves with lamb steak. The last two were the chices of me and my wife and both came from the "Oriental main dishes" section of the menu. Basmashkat is a dish of a very thin steak folded and stuffed with rice and ground meat mixture then cooked in a nice tomato sauce. It is a rare Damascene specialty that you hardly ever see on restaurant menu.

As a whole the main dishes were good but not as good as the mezzeh and salads. One of things I didn't like was the Bharat (Syrian mixed spice) mix they used. It was heavy on the cloves side and wasn't really to my taste. I am not a big fan of Bharat and I never use it in my cooking but after all this is individual taste.

The meal finished with complementary sweets and a nice cup of tea served in beautiful retro tea pots.


16 comments:

Joy said...

A beautiful place. A lovely meal, if not as much of a highlight as you hoped. I want to try it for myself! One day I hope!

SPDL said...

Al Khawali is good, to be sure... but there's far better in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria. It's got a great atmosphere, like Beit Jabri, but the food probably suffers from their popularity a little (like Beit Jabri...)

My favourite restaurant in Syria is probably Julia Domna in Homs - I thought the food there was absolutely fantastic. Kind of has to be, I guess, as Homs isn't really on the tourist trail, and Julia Domna isn't in any guide books.

That, and a nameless restaurant in the middle of the Jebel Ansariye which Abu Fares the Tartoussi took me to - it was easily one of the best meals of my life - but I don't think I'd ever be able to find it again...

Kano said...

@Joy
I am looking forward to the day you will visit Syria.

@SPDL
I agree with you, Al Khwali is s good restaurant but no way the best in town. My favourite restaurant in Syria of all the ones I tried remains Narinj. It wins hands down. The food, service and attention to deatails is second to none.

I will try to find this place Abo Fares took you too. May be next time I am in Syria.

tasteofbeirut said...

Kano
I was talking to an architect friend of my family in Beirut, a Russian/Lebanese man who teaches architecture at the AUB and he agreed that Damascus has the most beautiful traditional homes of the Levant; I want to go there next summer and just check out this house! It reminds me of the mini-series " Bab al-Hara", if you have ever seen it on TV. The food sounds disappointing; come over to Al-Ajami in Beirut or Abdel-Wahab!

SPDL said...

@Kano: I did want to eat at Narinj last time I was in Damascus - but it was off limits, as Assad and Sarkozy were dining there! I'll be back in Syria in a few months, and I'm really excited about trying it for the first time - so many people have been singing its praises since it opened.

Abu Fares will be able to point you in the right direction - the restaurant is run by a friend of his. It's also where he took Tony Tahhan - he wrote a good post about it recently.

When we went there, Abu and Umm Fares were great company and amazingly hospitable - they were what made the meal so great. But the food was truly amazing - the restaurant grows their own vegetables and raises their own chickens, and their raki is brewed locally. Our lunch had been in the ground and running around clucking only a couple of hours previously. It was excellent.

@Tasteofbeirut: Some of Bab al-Hara was shot in Beit Jabri; it's quite an experience to be in there while it's showing on TV - the waiters love watching it, and only do anything during the ad breaks.

Where is al-Ajami? I'm familiar with Abdel Wahab, and love it, but I've not heard of al-Ajami. I'll be in Beirut soon and would like to check it out!

rare said...

nice blog ...
about Khawali; I live in Jordan, and every while and then i go to damas just to eat there and come back during th same day!

Kano said...

@tasteofbeirut
When was the last time you visited Damascus. I haven't been to Beirut for almost 12 years. My wife really wants to go so I will ask you for advice on restaurants when we decide to go.

@SPDL
You look like a regular customer in Syria and Lebanon. Do you go for work or just holidays?

@rare
Welcome to my blog. Glad you like it. You must love the place if you make the trip especially. Have you tried Narenj down the road. Truly excellent.

SPDL said...

@Kano
Just holidays! I'm lucky enough to have a job which allows me to take lots of time off, so I try to travel as much as I can when I'm not working. I first went to Syria about five years ago, and absolutely adored it - it's easily my favourite out of the 35-odd countries I've visited (Lebanon, Jordan, Greece and Italy are probably are my next favourites after Syria).

Syrians tend to be incredibly friendly and hospitable (something I hope the recent tourism boom doesn't change), and the food, history, culture, architecture, language and weather are amazing. I see you've noticed the tourism boom too - it's a good thing. I don't think I saw another westerner there in 2005!

This summer will be my fifth visit to Syria, with a sixth lined up for later on in the year.

I'm also a Londoner; I've been quietly enjoying your blog for some time...

rare said...

inshalla nxt trip i wil try "Narenj" strange name! is it hard to get there, or far from Khawali?

Kano said...

@SPDL
Lucky for some ;)
I am so glad you like the blog and even happier that Syria is on the top of your list. I hope the tourism boom doesn't change all the beautiful things that make Syria the place it is.

@rare
Narenj is a type of citrus fruit very common in old Damascene houses. The restaurant is not Far from Al-Khwali. Just walk down Medhat Basha street towards Bab Sharqi. When you reach the Roman arch Narenj is on your left hand side.

Anonymous said...

As a former resident of the Old City (and a huge Damas nostalgic), I agree wholeheartedly about Khawali - it gets too much credit, and is not that good. It is better at lunch than at dinner, though, for some reason. It's also a bit dark.
Naranj is excellent, and has more variety than most other restaurants in Syria - they serve fattet al makdous, for example, which is rare on restaurant menus. And I love the fact that women work there as well as men. The waiters are all dressed as surgeons (or so it seems to me!) - that will appeal to kano!
As for Beit Jabri, it has had its day. The food and service are both as appalling as each other and it should be avoided.

Kano said...

@Anonymous

I like this surgeon business!

I used to like Beit Jabri. Nice place for Argeeleh and a light meal. I haven't been there for years. Shame to hear it went downhill since.

cameration said...

nice restaurant.syria in number one.

TendToTravel said...

wow..I went to this restaurant 3 times during my short stay in Damascus. I actually love the food here and I think the price is great too. As a foreigner, personally I think this restaurant is a good introduction to the Syrian cuisine. Will definitely try Narinj if I'm lucky enough to get back to this amazing city.

Kano said...

@Tend To Travel

Welcome to my blog.

I am glad you liked Al-Khawali and the rest of Syria.

I just had a quick look at your blog. I need to go again to read you Syria posts properly.

Kano said...

@cameration

Welcome to my blog.

Post a Comment