I thought I was pretty slick when I headed out to Brooklyn for “Syrian” food. I’d eyeballed Damascus Bread and Pastry on Atlantic Avenue quite a few times, and decided that it was time to finally venture in. When I looked up the address again, I found a listing (and a solitary yelp review) for yet another “Syrian” bakery called Damascus Bakery, located on Gold Street in Dumbo. I figured that “Damascus Bakery” and “Damascus Bread and Pastry” must be completely different businesses, since their names were a little bit different. This was potentially very exciting, because I would get to eat Syrian food in two different bakeries! Awesome, right?
Just one little problem: the two bakeries are actually the same business. Gold Street is the location of the bakery itself, Atlantic Avenue is the location of the retail store only. And neither location is Syrian at all.
According to the friendly non-Syrian gentleman in the retail store, Damascus Bakery has been owned by Lebanese immigrants in Brooklyn since 1920 (though the sign said 1930). In 1920, most of modern Syria (as well as parts of modern-day Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon) was part of a French-controlled State of Damascus, which the friendly Lebanese gentleman in the bakery referred to as “Damascusland”. Like much of the Middle East during the first half of the 20th century, the borders of Syria and Lebanon were subject to the whims of French and British colonists, and the current states of Syria and Lebanon weren’t clearly defined in their current forms until after WWII.
But by then, Damascus Bakery was already an institution in Brooklyn, and owners thought it would be confusing to change the name of their business. So despite the owners’ Lebanese ancestry, the name of the bakery still seems Syrian. Interesting.
Despite Damascus Bakery’s long tenure in Brooklyn, the food was a surprisingly mixed bag. I love snack-sized Middle Eastern spinach pies and meat pies, so I ordered four of them (four snacks makes a meal, right?): a whole wheat spinach pie, a spinach pie with feta cheese, a beef-filled pie, and a chicken pie ($2 each). I was impressed by the shredded chicken in its dry, smoky-sweet tomato sauce, but the other pies were merely good, not great; the dough on all four pies was somewhat flaccid, which doesn’t exactly ruin the pies, but it doesn’t help, either. The tabouli salad ($3.50 for a small container)—one of my favorite dishes on earth—was an even bigger disappointment. Honestly, the tabouli had spent a few too many nights in the refrigerator, and the parsley had a hint of that brown, liquefied taste that plagues greens that are past their prime. I ate a few bites, and threw the rest away. Sad story.
The rest of my food was fairly solid. I was pretty happy with the falafel sandwich ($4), which was rescued by a stellar combination of tahini, marinated red cabbage, and pickles. I also bought a package of cookies stuffed with pureed dates and covered in sesame seeds—delicious, but arguably a little bit overpriced at $8.99 a pound (my bag of 12 or so cookies cost $6.12). I also bought a package of flatbread coated with olive oil and zahtar (sesame seeds, salt, thyme, and sumac), which had a little bit too much of a charred flavor for my taste, though it was a decent companion to the absolutely delicious chilled okra salad ($3.50), a wonderful, not-overly-slimy paste of tomatoes, garlic, onions, pepper, okra, and allspice—easily the highlight of my (large, but somewhat disappointing) meal.
Fortunately, Damascus Bakery isn’t the only place in NYC that serves Lebanese food under a not-necessarily-Lebanese name. Good old Kalustyan’s in Curry Hill is legendary for its astounding selection of imported teas, spices and other dry goods, but the upstairs deli is my favorite part of the place. They serve a healthy variety of Middle Eastern standards (hummus, tabouli, kibbeh, falafel) as well as a rotating selection of steam-table delights.
On my first visit, a friendly staffer saw my exited-but-indecisive face pressed against the steam table, and generously offered me spoonfuls of all six items on offer: a white bean dish, lentils sauteed with crispy fried onions, sautéed spinach with carmelized onions, and stewed eggplant with tomatoes and peppers, among other things. Everything was spectacular, so I wussed out, and asked for a combo plate. I received a monstrous container overflowing with spinach, lentils with fried onions, a green salad, a warm pita, pickled vegetables (celery, carrots, cucumbers), and dolma (stuffed grape leaves)… all for $7.99. It was enough fiber to make me squirm for a day or so, but tasty enough to be worth every moment of squirming.
Interestingly, my Armenian friends insist that the name Kalustyan is Armenian in origin, but when I asked two different elders at Kalustyan’s about the origins of their recipes, they replied with an identical, seemingly rehearsed line: “our food is from all over the Middle East, but mostly Lebanon.” Lebanese or Armenian or otherwise, I’m a fan.
Damascus Bread & Bakery
195 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn
Subway: Borough Hall (2, 3, 4, 5 trains)
123 Lexington Ave., Manhattan
Subway: 28th Street (6 train)