Have you ever met a restaurant owner who has been a house painter, real estate agent, rug dealer, bread deliverer, camel trainer and interpreter as well as running a tourism business?
Meet Ahmad Alssaleh from Palmyra, Syria. Although he is only 31 and the youngest of ten children, he is not only unstoppable, he is about to celebrate the first anniversary of one of the most imaginative and best restaurants we have ever been to anywhere – not just Athens.
But we’ll get to the food later. His story will whet your appetite, as it did ours.
It all started back in 2009 when Alssaleh met Magda, a Greek girl who’d gone to Syria as a tourist. In those days he had been working in tourism himself, organizing “camping safaris” into the desert around the ruins of Palmyra on camelback and horseback and cooking traditional food for his groups. He was extremely successful and is even mentioned in foreign blogs about those happier days.
But meeting Magda changed his fate. By 2010 they’d decided to marry (to save on airfare), and on October 28, 2011 (a major Greek holiday), he arrived in Athens on a tourist visa. They married three weeks later on November 17, the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising against the Junta.
We joked as he told us this, predicting that any child was sure to be born on March 25, Independence Day.
But happy as they were to be together, finding a job proved impossible in those early years of the “crisis,” and it took 18 months to get a residence permit.
“I arrived with 1,500 euros in my pocket and started searching elsewhere in the European Union. I tried being a house painter in Italy for a month, but it didn’t pay well. Then someone told me there were camels in Cyprus, so I applied for a job as a camel trainer in Larnaca, but when I landed, they wouldn’t let me in. Had some excuse that my wife had to accompany me, but I know it was because they don’t want Syrians.
“Then I heard about a zoo in Patras where there were camels, so I went there. The owner wanted to offer camel rides, but his animals had to be trained first. He was suspicious to begin with, so I did a bit of camel whispering and got them to kneel down on my very first encounter. While it usually takes six months to get camels to accept a rider, I had them ready in three weeks. I also made some saddles and told him I was going to make his business better, get him some publicity.
“’Let’s go to the beach,’ I said. We had some beers and I told him my plan. The next weekend we went back, with two camels, and started a new fad. Camel riding on the beach! Everyone started writing about us, we were even on TV, and money started coming in.
“Meanwhile, my wife got a job offer from Dubai, so we left. There were no camels there, so I spent a month working in real estate but didn’t get a single commission. Then I thought of importing kilims from Syria. Foreigners loved these beautiful old rugs, so I started to do good business, for about eight months. When my wife was fired from her second job, we had to go back to Greece. I left the business in the hands of a woman from Australia, and it’s still going strong.
“We miss home, but we’re not alone, and now this is everybody’s home,” Alssaleh said.
“By now I had a little money, and I went to Poland, where a friend had a hostel for sale, but that didn’t work out. So instead I bought a five-room apartment near Omonia and rented it to refugees. This was when the border with Macedonia closed, and there was a housing shortage. All this time I wanted to open a café with Syrian snacks. Monastiraki was too expensive, but this place [in Gazi] was empty and affordable. Again it took many months to get the permit, and I needed more money to fix it up. My brother had an idea. He was among the refugees stuck at Idomeni, and he said, ‘Why don’t you bring up some bread from Athens? We can’t eat what they give us.’
“So that’s when I found myself driving back and forth from Athens to Idomeni with the car loaded with hundreds of packets of Arab bread. I’d leave at midnight, arrive there at 6, sell it, rest a bit and then head back. I did that bread run for a month, making 400 to 500 euros each time. After that, my brother came with me and helped fix up the shop” – which looks deceptively like a fast-food eatery or coffee house, with its white chairs and plate-glass window. “He managed to get to Germany two months ago.
By this time our mouths were hanging open in disbelief at Alssaleh’s entrepreneurial spirit, determination and energy and the way he smiled as he narrated his saga. Luckily his waiter, Christos, a half-Greek, half Cypriot who hails from Johannesburg, had given us a carafe of extra good Moschofilero wine, and we were beginning to feel peckish.
A Little Taste of Home opened on July 11, 2016, and almost immediately closed.
“Greeks go to the beach when it’s hot, and in any case Athens is empty in August, so we went on holiday ourselves. We’ve also departed from our original idea of coffee and snacks. It’s not just Syrian food any more. The chef, Zuhir, is a friend of mine from Palmyra, and he can cook anything.”
A look at the menu reveals dishes from Turkey, Morocco, India, Italy and Greece, as well as Syria. There are seven appetizers, four salads and 12 entrees, each with a very tempting description followed by a couple of recommendations for a wine accompaniment, good choices from smaller producers. But on Christos’s advice we stuck to the house wines, switching to a mellow red Agiorgitiko, which may well be the best house red we’ve tasted.
Of course, we wanted to order Syrian dishes, but there were surprisingly few on the menu. We settled on Damascene baba ganoush, which came decorated with ruby pomegranate seeds; a green salad flecked with strawberries and topped with crisp kataifi (shredded phyllo usually reserved for honey-soaked desserts); lamb shank with fabulous mashed potato; Sultan’s Delight, a smoky eggplant puree with beef stew; and a lamb tagine with apricots and prunes on couscous.
All of these were not only scrumptious, they were also beautifully presented. However, if we had to choose, the pièce de resistance would be the meatballs in cherry sauce (kioufta bil karaz), “a festive dish from Aleppo prepared in the Armenian kitchens of the region.” The meatballs reduced our comments from “wow,” “ooh,” “yum” and “incredible” to complete silence. Before these dishes arrived, we were treated to a dip of roasted mushroom puree that gave us an inkling that this was no ordinary restaurant. And we finished with an exquisite, “deconstructed” galaktoboureko, rose-water scented custard pie bristling with shards of crisp, barely sweetened phyllo.
As one of our party concluded, “This is haute cuisine in simple surroundings with simple prices.”
We also discovered why the restaurant does not open until 6 p.m. Alssaleh is helping to support several family members still in Syria, and A Little Taste of Home has yet to turn a profit. So he has a day job too, as a translator and now supervisor with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which helps provide refugees with basic needs.
When we asked Alssaleh why he’d chosen such an international menu, he said, “We miss home, but we’re not alone, and now this is everybody’s home.”
And if you want to recreate the dishes of your own birthplace, call A Little Taste of Home a few days in advance, give Ahmad your menu and Zuhir will cook them, probably better than your mother used to. We made ourselves a promise then and there that we would collect some Middle Eastern friends and order a Syrian-Lebanese-Egyptian feast soon.