Mitchell Street’s Damascus Gate captures the beautifully bright flavors of Syria.

The platter that’s seized my senses is teeming with rice and meat, the thinnest sheets of flatbread I’ve ever seen covering the kebabs like a veil. I reach for one piece of bread as my friend makes for the other. Warm and flaky, a divine wrapper for sizzling chunks of the skinny, skewered lamb-beef meatloaf called kefta kebab. The bread is gone in a blink, but the server is already halfway to our table with more, wrapped in wax paper. 

Modern gastronomes ponder the cultural significance of foodways. And truly what and how we eat are tied to our city’s newest immigrants as tightly as that kefta is threaded to a metal skewer. As a country of immigrants, our melting pot of cuisines holds a rich stew. As the first Milwaukee restaurant operated by Syrian refugees, Damascus Gate – the Mitchell Street restaurant where I’m engrossed in this fine meal – brings more welcome flavors to the pot.

The story begins with a local doctor, Syrian expat Ahmad Nasef, who is helping build a self-sustaining future in MKE for Syrians displaced by civil war. That future is a restaurant, open since January, that launched with a small menu of appetizers, grilled meats and sandwiches to test the waters and slowly acclimate the staff to running a kitchen. These are familiar, approachable dishes, such as tabbouleh, hummus, falafel and stuffed grape leaves, but with some subtle regional differences.

Damascus Gate

807 W. Mitchell St.,
414-810-3561

Hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers/salads $3-$17; sandwiches, entrees $5-$12

Service: Friendly, very welcoming; how quickly the food arrives depends on how busy the kitchen is.

Fattoush salad uses pita as a main ingredient

Fatayer are pies filled with cheese or spinach

The next step, taken in May, was to roll out some other limited-time dishes that reflect the cooking found in Syrian homes. With two cooks preparing the foods they learned to cook from their mothers, the menu was laid out buffet-style every weeknight during Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally fast during the day and eat only after sunset.

The fixed-price buffet was a wealth of wonders – tables topped with chafing dishes and large pans of rich, saucy dishes ranging from kebsa (an aromatic, richly spiced rice dish) and maqlooba (a layered meat, vegetable and rice dish served upside-down) to stuffed lamb and chicken freekah, a grain common in the Middle East.

The fragrance in this simply adorned dining room is like being enveloped in the sweet-savory cooking of a home kitchen. The maqlooba and freekah were especially good, the former with its soft-chewy rice with hints of tomato, cinnamon and cumin. The freekah looks like barley, but has a firmer texture and smokiness that balances well with the mild poultry.

If all goes well, the day-to-day menu will have expanded to include some of these dishes by the time you are reading this. In the meantime, the more abbreviated intro menu has several standouts, served in generous portions. Appetizers – thick, nutty hummus ($6), a tapenade-like moussaka ($6) and tender falafel ($4-$6.50) – are meant to be shared meze (small plate) style, hence the availability of a mixed appetizer plate featuring five things ($17). The rice-stuffed grape leaves virtually breathe lemon and garlic ($5), and the lemon/olive oil-dressed tabbouleh balances bulgur wheat with parsley, not too much of one or the other ($6).

Another bite to add to your meze is a small bread pie called fatayer ($1 each) filled with spinach or salty, smooth akkawi cheese. Juicy chunks of grilled chicken or exquisitely tender lamb-beef kefta are the grilled meat plate choices, served over basmati rice (there’s a mixed grill, too, $12 each).

Plan to enjoy this with a friend. There’s so much to savor, and in so doing, delicate pieces of a culture to learn bit by bit.

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“A Homeland Discovered ” appears in the July 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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