Cari Taylor-Carlson

It’s All Fresh at Damascus Gate

Syrian restaurant on Mitchell St. serves the best falafel, kefta kabobs and hummus in town.

By - Jul 30th, 2019 03:37 pm
Damascus Gate. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Damascus Gate. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

You know a restaurant is immaculate when the multi-tasking server is mopping the floor when you arrive. At Damascus Gate, in addition to its obvious cleanliness, you’ll find outstanding Syrian food, served in an informal space, where tables line the exterior walls, banquet style, leaving an empty floor in the center. I’m no interior decorator, but, wondered if the tables could be rearranged to cozy up the restaurant. Meanwhile, it was hard to stop admiring the lovely black-and-white and colored-photos of Damascus, taken before the Syrian Civil War, that served up memories along with the deliciously authentic Syrian cuisine.

Both times friends and I came for lunch we had the same server, Abdel, a charming young man from Egypt, a newcomer to Milwaukee, who answered our questions as best he could. For example, because they look and taste the same, we asked about the difference between the pita bread that comes with the appetizers, and shrak bread used to wrap sandwiches. The difference is subtle. Abdel explained that they make the shrak bread slightly thicker and stronger to hold the sandwiches together, while the pita, thin and stretchy, works better to scoop hummus and baba ghannouj.

And that’s how you use the pita if you order the Vegetarian Mixed Appetizer. Before you take a bite of this tray with its five appetizers, you know this will be memorable by looking at the enticing colorful display of textures and potentially diverse flavors.

First the Mousakaa, not the familiar Greek dish, instead a Syrian mousakaa, tomato-based, made with eggplant, onions, peppers, a hint of cumin, olive oil, and of course many more spices. It’s smoky, juicy, spicy, a fragrant dip waiting to be scooped in a piece of that stretchy chewy pita. Also, ready for the pita, Baba Ghannouj and Hummus, both drizzled with additional olive oil to enrich their flavors. The Baba Ghannouj, smoky creamy, savory, has a strong lemony eggplant flavor, while tahini and garlic perfume the perfectly smooth ground chickpeas.

The Falafel, five pieces, top my chart for the best-ever falafel. They were shaped more like doughnuts than softballs, with thin outside crusts, and inside, an unusually moist filling of ground chickpeas.

But we found the last item on this vegetarian feast, Tabbouleh, a disappointment, as it tasted mainly of parsley and lemon, which overwhelmed the tomato, the mint and the bulgur.

My companion’s Chicken Sandwich, wrapped in grilled shrak bread, included onion and tomato. Tahini sauce integrated the flavors, making a sandwich worthy of a rave. Both the chicken, grilled on a skewer, and the shrak bread, had come to the point of almost, but not quite charred, not easy to accomplish, but worth a mention, as the crunchy bread and the juicy chicken made an impressive combination. A side of red sauce, similar to ajvar, a red pepper spread, had spicy heat, which brought the flavors together and made them pop.

For a light lunch, the Fatayer, a fresh spinach pie, tasted like it had just exited the oven. The spices in the pie worked their magic on the ordinary spinach, obviously fresh, not frozen, making a yeasty, compact, eat-with-your fingers pie.

And for a complete meal for one or two or three, you can order the Mixed Grill Platter with hummus, grilled tomato and onion, a small salad, and clove-scented rice topped with grilled chicken and one Kefta Kabob skewer. This was a feast on a plate. The kabob, a mix of ground beef and lamb, was juicy; the chicken, again, almost charred, yet not a hint of dry; and more of that spicy red sauce to bundle with everything.

We were disappointed with the Fried Kebbeh, finely ground beef with bulgur and onions, deep-fried, and dry; and the Grape Leaves, packed tight with rice and tomatoes, didn’t have a lot of flavor, and we found them too oily.

We had anticipated dessert, unfortunately Muhallaya, or rice pudding, and Kunafa, dough with a sweet filling, would not be available until later. That suggested another visit.

Here are my last words about Damascus Gate. Everything on the menu is made fresh daily; the portions are generous; the service is friendly; the prices are reasonable; the pita is unique in a good way; and in my opinion, they make the best falafel, baba ghannouj, hummus, and kefta kabobs that you can find in Milwaukee!

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