NEWINGTON - If youâ€™ve never tried Syrian food, this is the place.
Customers are praising the steaming bowls of lentil soup, baba ghanouj and grilled meats coming out of the kitchen at 337 Willard Avenue, where Taj Alsham Cuisine: Damascus Grill recently opened its doors.
Husband and wife owners Nassir Alsabbagh and Lubabah Alkhateeb have brought their Syrian roots to Newington and are hoping to share the cuisine of their home countryâ€™s capital city - Damascus - with anyone who will try it.
Following a lifelong love of cooking and hailing from a family of Syrian restaurant owners, Alkhateeb is the chef and kitchen manager.
â€śOur family in Syria has a big kitchen, a restaurant and sweets store,â€ť she said. â€śWhen I came here I wanted to introduce our delicious food to the American people.â€ť
After earning her masterâ€™s degree in Arabic language studies, Alkhateeb stayed home to care for the coupleâ€™s two young children. But she also kept cooking, and friends and relatives urged her to take that passion outside of the familyâ€™s home.
Taj Alsham food is all made fresh and â€śHalalâ€ť which means itâ€™s been certified permissible for consumption by Muslims. Arabics, Muslims and Jews can all eat here, the owners say, because of the restaurantâ€™s special adherence to their religious food handling practices. But theyâ€™d also like others to give Damascus cuisine a chance.
â€śItâ€™s healthy food, made in healthy ways,â€ť Alkhateeb explained. â€śEverybody who comes here and tries it loves it.â€ť
Vegan eaters can feel at home in this place, where eggplant, squash and grape leaves are stuffed with rice, nuts and spices. Exotic salads boast fresh vegetables and unique flavors.
Meat eaters can relish in lamb, chicken and beef kebabs, served sandwich style with homemade sauces on pita bread. Ground meat tops kibbe, safiha and rice.
But donâ€™t ignore dessert, since pastries and sweets are Alkhateebâ€™s specialty.
Her mamoul cookies are tender and buttery, filled with dates, walnuts or pistachios and commonly served at the end of Ramadan as a special treat. There are eleven different desserts on the Taj Alsham catering menu. The familyâ€™s catering business is its most lucrative pursuit, serving weddings, funerals, birthday parties, baby showers and anniversaries across the state.
There are four square tables inside the restaurant, which the couple has spent the last six months renovating. An intricate red tapestry covers the far wall and artwork depicts Syrian castles.
â€śNewington is in the middle of the state and itâ€™s a nice town,â€ť Alsabbagh said. â€śOur food attracts a lot of customers who live here and in the surrounding towns.â€ť
Like Abdul Hamid and Rosni Otte, who traveled from their home in East Hartford to have lunch at Taj Alsham Tuesday.
â€śWe found it on Zagat,â€ť Hamid said, referring to a popular restaurant rating website.
The couple shared a variety of dishes and gave an excellent review.
â€śItâ€™s really fresh, very good food,â€ť Hamid said.
â€śReal Syrian food,â€ť his wife added.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.