Is the World’s Best Syrian Restaurant in Montreal?


At his beloved Montreal restaurant, a Canadian‑Syrian chef gives spice route flavours a new home.

Three days before Fuad Nirabie met me at his restaurant, Damas (French for Damascus), he was finishing a buying trip 100 kilometres from the Syrian capital. For two weeks, he bounced between Lebanon and Turkey with his wife and son, sourcing spices, sweets, antiques and tiles near the northern border of Lebanon – neither too far, nor close enough, to his roots in Homs, Syria. Before the civil war began in 2011, the Alberta–born, Homs–raised chef sourced staples directly from Syria. It was a short–lived promise to no one but himself to replicate the tastes he left behind when he returned to Canada for university. But the uprisings started within months of Nirabie opening Damas, so these buying trips are the way it has to be.

On the last day of his excursion in Tripoli, Lebanon, he happened upon a delicacy he had never seen sold outside Syria before, let alone in such abundance: desert truffles, called kamaa. The fist–sized fungi are mistaken for potatoes by the most unfortunate, but Nirabie immediately recognized them from his childhood, accompanying his merchant grandfather to Homs’ 400–year–old souk, a heritage site obliterated in just three years by civil war. Because kamaa need winter thunderstorms to crack open the desert and fill it with nitrogen–rich rain, vendors can go years without seeing them – and that’s before war made truffle hunting too dangerous – but suddenly, they were everywhere.

July 1, 2019
A pile of red Aleppo pepper that comes from Syria
Chef Fuad Nirabie (at centre) watches over dinner, and the first wave of dishes
A sprinkle of Syria’s signature fruity Aleppo pepper goes (and has come) a long way.
Chef Fuad Nirabie (at centre) watches over dinner, and the first wave of dishes.

Sellers didn’t know where the kamaa came from, some didn’t even know what it was. Nirabie bought 20 kilograms, peeled and cooked a quarter of it before his flight, and gave the rest to his wife to bring back with her.

Before Damas, Nirabie completed a film degree and had a modest career making art–house films, some about food, which led him to the culinary arts and designing Persian, Lebanese, Armenian and Turkish menus across Montreal before homing in on his homeland. “My vision was to recreate my memories with the best–quality ingredients possible,” says the self–taught chef. “Very simple, that’s it.” The restaurant quickly became a hit.

“Why is fine dining their brand, but ours is ‘cheap food’?”

If civil war couldn’t stop Nirabie from delivering on his concept, a fire definitely wouldn’t. Often named one of the best restaurants in Canada, the Mile End establishment became a local favourite the year it opened and had garnered an ardent following before it went up in flames in 2015. Some decried the chef quickly reopening his restaurant a few blocks away, three times bigger and many times bolder. They worried it would become unrefined. Others thought that it would become too refined, a criticism Nirabie says is steeped in the sustained debasing of Middle Eastern cuisine. “If this was a French, Japanese or Italian restaurant, there would be no problem,” he says matter of factly. “Why is fine dining their brand, but ours is ‘cheap food’?”

A piece of sea bass in a tahini sauce with caramelized onions, in a metal plate on a wooden table
Sea bass swims in rich tahini sauce with caramelized onions.

Slouched in a mahogany dining chair with his arms slung over the backrest, Nirabie speaks with a slight mumble and molasses–like cadence. What at first appears to be jet lag is a personality quirk – an air of Don Corleone amplified by his large frame and serious demeanour. Around us, staff set walnut tables and prepare a room decorated in pan–Arabian art: Mamluk rug, Moroccan tiles, chandelier chains stamped with the Hand of Fatima and an Islamo–Gothic window fashioned after a hilltop castle visible from Homs.

Aleppo was once a gourmet capital: Paris of the Ottoman Empire, LAX of the spice route.

When war broke out, sanctions, sieges and a mass flight of farmers choked Syria’s food supply chain to the point where Aleppo, once a gourmet capital – Paris of the Ottoman Empire, LAX of the spice route – suffered a famine. But the crisis led to the proliferation of its cuisine, as refugees got back to business, introducing westerners to nutty za’atar blends and the Aleppo pepper, a smoky, fruity crop now flourishing in California.

Much of that culinary talent exists in Little Syrias blossoming in Beirut, Berlin and Istanbul. “These originally came from Syria,” says Nirabie, opening boxes of miniature baklava and date–stuffed biscuits from pastry shops he patronized in the 1980s. Two third–generation bakeries, uprooted to Turkey during the war, are designing Damas–brand sweets for Nirabie’s future Marché Damas – the main mission of his recent business trip.

Many round containers filled with colourful Middle Eastern spices
The flavours of Syria are thriving in Damas’ kitchen.

Fashioned after Damascus’ Old City, the chef’s Middle Eastern market will carry the nearly 200 premium products his company has produced, designed or sourced over the years. Picture a souk stall selling za’atars designed in Aleppo, sourced in southern Turkey and mixed in Montreal; another for olives from his partner’s groves near Tripoli; another for preserves, farmed, pickled and packaged by refugees who have aggregated culinary skills from across Syria on a strip of land edging the border in Lebanon’s wine country. Vendors will pass crispy falafel wraps and fresh juices into the aisles that will open, unexpectedly, to a full–service restaurant in a Damascene courtyard – fountains, lemon trees and all.

The flagship food hall is set for next year in the old Montreal Forum building, with plans for another of the same size in New York City. But a downscaled version is opening in October, directly across the street from Damas in an old brick building. I can see the future Marché Damas now, just over Nirabie’s right shoulder on Avenue Van Horne, a few kilometres from Canada’s original Little Syria, where the chef’s predecessors set up shop more than a century ago.

A pair of hands breaking open pita bread.
Bread is broken often during a 26–dish meal.
A beautiful middle eastern tapestry in close-up. Red is the predominant colour.
Lean back on dining room chairs swirling with Levantine motifs.

For staples that evolved in Syria’s semi–arid earth, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Nirabie incorporated a Lebanese company to import Aleppo peppers from their home province at a premium, repackaged and re–exported them to beat sanctions. Ditto freekeh, a protein–packed super grain harvested from open fires that Nirabie boils in lamb stock for a smoky risotto. The tartness of Syrian pomegranates dresses fattoush, thickens muhammara dip, balances fiery sea bass swimming in tahini sauce, and virtually everything is dusted with ground Aleppo pepper.

This meal was booked five weeks ahead, and my wife and I starved ourselves the day of our reservation. But even before we were seated, Nirabie had reservations of his own. He expected more in our party and doubted we would experience the breadth and depth of Damas before filling up. “You will have a taste of each dish and move on, so we can clear the table and bring you more,” he explains. “Haram (forbidden acts, in Islam), I know, but trust me.”

Damas' cooks attending the grill

Ten, 20, even 40 different dishes to a table isn’t unheard of.

Raised by Lebanese parents, for whom food is religion, I can’t let this happen. The feast becomes a game of chicken between the kitchen and our appetites. Even as the order count reaches into the dozens, I’m pinching freekeh with pita for a fifth time.

The dishes come quickly in quadruplets and sextuplets. Ten, 20, even 40 different dishes to a table isn’t unheard of. Each is a Syrian city’s take on Levantine classics. Hummus, two ways. Baba ghanouj three, including a cold salad of silky smoked eggplant, tomatoes and walnuts piled with crumbles of baladi, a soft white cheese from a Quebec sheep farm collaborating with Damas. A fatteh with lamb shank layered in bread pudding, and another with pine–nut and lamb–stuffed eggplant.

The epic mezze is broken up by sharing entrées illustrating Nirabie’s urban stylings – humble shish taouk turned into neat rows of whipped garlic cream mounds and charcoaled chicken morsels crimsoned with spices – and Mediterranean influences that arrived by sea. From the grill: wild jumbo shrimp spiced with Aleppine za’atar, drizzled with caper tahini. From the sauté kitchen: thick–cut sea bass preserved with dill, soaked in lemon and olive oil.

Three people (a woman between two men) laughing in front of a rustic-looking brick wall in a restaurant.
Pieces of a pomegranate fruit on a marble table
The Damas crew is all smiles.
A pomegranate.

Many of the flavours are foreign to me, others so familiar they could have been sent straight from my mom’s kitchen in Edmonton. Damascene specialties, like fattoush, only had to travel 75 kilometres over the Anti–Lebanon Mountains to reach her village in the valley. Which begged the question, what’s the difference between Lebanese and Syrian cuisines?

When I asked Nirabie this two days earlier, his answer surprised me.

“There’s no difference,” he said. “There’s no difference because there’s no border, there are no countries.” Food in Daraa, a southern city, he explained, is similar to that in Jerusalem; cuisine from Aleppo, in the north, is closer to Turkish food. His grandma’s cooking bears more resemblance to Tripoli. Bristling at culinary nationalism, he only billed Damas as Syrian cuisine to distinguish his recipes from those popularized – and homogenized – in the 1980s by refugees of the Lebanese Civil War.

Hands preparing Syrian-style pita bread on a wooden surface
Pita bread from scratch: all the better for scooping up a myriad of mezze.

He pointed to the Arabic script above the main dining room, on a framed red ceiling designed for a luxurious Persian rug that disappeared days before reopening Damas. He replaced it with mirrored glass calligraphy: Dimashq A’Sham. Dimashq is the Arabic name for Damascus, while A’Sham is both colloquial for Damascus and vernacular for the whole Levant (the historical region of Syria). “You can read it ‘Damascus of the Levant’ or ‘the Levant is Damascus’.”

This is my statement to the world, and it has nothing to do with artificial borders drawn by the French.”

A waiter serves food under an ornate restaurant ceiling with Syrian adornments, which is red in colour
Octopus cooking on a charcoal grill
Damas is lit up with Levantine culture, from past to present.

And then, for the first time since meeting, the pitch of his voice started rising. “This is my statement to the world, and it has nothing to do with artificial borders drawn by the French,” he said. “It’s all a part of one region and we make this food, we make this culture, we make this art. I consider myself an ambassador, and that’s it.” I may have miscalculated Nirabie’s intensity. It’s less like grenadine, more like Turkish coffee boiling up to the brim, about to spill over when it’s lifted off the burner, then reboiled, then again. Turks call this köpüklü olsun, a precarious but necessary process of building and preserving the precious foam. It’s in this state that Nirabie forged ahead with Damas, and then forged his own trade routes from the Levant to Montreal. It’s in this state that he’s building Marché Damas to introduce premium Middle Eastern products to the West.

The desert truffles, however, will have to wait. They didn’t survive the trip to Canada. But if nothing else, they were a sign that his fractured homeland is slowly piecing itself together, making his “simple” mission slightly simpler.

Canada’s First Little Syria

“Notre–Dame Street East was the focal point of Syrian Canada,” says Brian Aboud, guiding me through a two–block stretch of Old Montreal. From a single intersection, the historian points to former locations of the Syrian National Club, an Orthodox church, grocers and wholesalers that disappeared during the Depression. His grandfather’s shop was not far away, and when merchants like him hankered for the homeland, they went to see the matriarch of Little Syria.

“They would leave their shops and go to Afifi’s flat,” he says. “There was no sign, nothing.” Little more is known about Afifi’s, but Aboud is confident that other ad–hoc eateries existed before hers, all of them anchored by a dry–goods importer with a line on chickpeas, lentils and cumin.

The ethnic enclave was home to a majority of immigrants we now call Lebanese. They were, in fact, from the Ottoman Empire’s “Greater Syria”: a 1,500–kilometre–wide region stretching from the Sinai Peninsula to the Taurus Mountains of modern–day Turkey.

Most were Catholics (and later, Orthodox Christians) and the first immigrants – to Canada, actually – arrived in 1882 in search of economic stability and prosperity. After World War I, under French occupation, the League of Nations drew borders around a religiously diverse area, creating modern Lebanon.