He had been a child soldier in a brutal civil war, just a 14-year-old hiding behind the sandbags of the Christian militia. And he was finally en route to safety. But as Roland Kassis stood on a cargo ship bound for Cyprus in 1984, he looked back at Beirut with tears streaming down his face. The mountains of Lebanon were fading, and so, too, were the friends he left behind, "along with my honor." And also his grandmother Suraya El-Harouny, who put him on that boat.
She was the one who raised Roland and his sister. In Beirut, despite the war, life went on between the nighttime bombings. Children had play dates. Neighbors shared morning coffee from their balconies. And little Roland would run to a bakery not far from the minefields with his family's special za'atar in hand, a mix of sun-dried wild thyme, oregano, sumac, and sesame that his grandmother would mix with finely minced onions and enough olive oil to create a paste – ready to spread over the aromatic man'oushe flatbreads that were baked for breakfast in the communal hearth.
Now, 34 years later, the tangy herb smell of za'atar flatbreads roasting in a wood oven fills the air once again. But Kassis is in a very different place. He's the real estate king of Fishtown, where he owns most of 11 city blocks on Front Street and Frankford Avenue, where he's developed properties for other operators at La Colombe, Fette Sau, Frankford Hall, and Joe's Steaks. But for his latest project, he and his sister, Nathalie Richan, have rekindled their own histories for the inspiration at Suraya, conjuring up those magical man'oushe and so much more.
This blocklong dream palace named for their grandmother is a rambling all-day concept. There's a market and cafe in front where baristas steam milky cups of "Lebanese chai" from orchid root powder, tea, and crushed pistachios. The moody central dining room basks in the aroma of meats roasting in the open kitchen over live fires. The crowd is reliably diverse — with tables of women in hijab scarves one recent night happily munching through mezze beside some lithe young Fishtown daters in yoga chic and their manbuns pulled up tight.
There's something for everyone at Suraya, which, with the recent launch of dinner, has fully blossomed into one of the most exciting new dining destinations of the year.
The buttery kouign-amann pastry I devoured for breakfast wove an exotic note of cardamom into its flaky caramel crunch. The meltingly juicy chunks of skewered halibut for dinner, marinated in cuminy yogurt for hours and dusted with the tangy black powder of grated dried Omani limes, were a revelation. The snappy grilled grape leaves stuffed with rice over creamy labne with tiny barberries and crispy shallots were perfect.
If you think you've tasted good baba ghanoush, fresh pitas, or the lemony tang of chicken shish taouk kebabs singed oh-so-close to the glowing coals, Suraya might just raise that bar another notch, with the anise kiss of an arak cocktail to wash it down and a warm phyllo nest of sweet cheese kanafeh for a seductive dessert finale.
This space was supposed be another Stephen Starr-Aimee Olexy production. But when that project fell through, Kassis and Richan, who also owns Cafe La Maude, decided to pair with their partners at Root Restaurant, Greg Root and chef Nicholas Kennedy, to help channel their homage to their memories of Lebanon into an updated modern experience.
No expense was spared on the long 12,000-square-foot space envisioned by Kassis and designed by Richard Stokes. Every bit of $4 million is evident in the intricate red-on-white tile work, the clusters of pendant glass lights dangling from gilt sconces meant to evoke the minarets and church spires of Beirut, the tents that frame the dining room seating in Kassis' memories of the nomadic Bedouin camps, the elegant glass casement door entrances built as replicas of their neighbors' homes in Lebanon. A lavish back garden patio is still taking shape, just waiting for its floating fire and fountain to be installed.
Root, a longtime veteran of the Starr universe, has the front house staff working with impressive grace, comfortably coursing out the myriad little plates, deftly interpreting for novice diners everything from urfa biber (a dried chili) to two kinds of kibbeh, and tour-guiding a fascinating drink list that, aside from its za'taar-dusted cocktails and Lebanese craft beer, presents the lesser-known wines of Lebanon, Turkey, and Morocco with justified pride.
But it is chef Kennedy's work here in absorbing the invaluable kitchen lessons from Nathalie and her mom, Maude El-Harouny, who ran a Lebanese restaurant in Liberia, that has brought Suraya's cuisine to a rarefied sweet spot, straddling tradition and modern style. Reconnaissance trips to Beirut and Middle Eastern-rich Dearborn, Mich., laid the foundation for this talented veteran of Jean-Georges and Del Posto.
But it was the time spent with Maude, who advised him between chemo sessions while battling lung cancer, that helped him dial in the touch and techniques ("Not enough lemon in the grape leaves! Make them again!") that give this food subtlety, power, and depth — and a distinct personality that differs in often subtle ways from the Israeli flavors that have long amazed us at Zahav. Not only do the charred eggplants get weighted overnight to purge their liquid and intensify flavor, they must be hand-chopped, then whisked – not food-processed – to keep the texture right. Topped with earthy flakes of dried urfa peppers, golden swirls of El Koura olive oil, and sweet-tart jewels of pomegranate seeds, this baba has special moves.
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My obsession with kibbeh found two new standards here. A delicately fried shell of cinnamon-scented beef and bulgur harbored a soft core of pine nuts, raisins, and ground meat. The tartare delicacy of kibbeh nayyeh brought a dimpled patty of raw lamb that had been pureed to a silky paste punctuated with the sumac-dusted crunch of raw onions scattered with mint.
The hummus is a simple beauty, with a pronounced lemon and garlic swagger that's especially good topped with crispy chickpeas or roasted bits of baharat-spiced lamb. Heirloom radishes and chips of the housemade pitas add an updated crunch to the fattouch salad. Cumin and Aleppo pepper pace the earthy muhammara of roasted peppers ground with walnuts.
The French influence on Lebanon is apparent not just in the amazing fries dusted with Levant spice, but also in the lunchtime omelet, covered in minty chopped herbs and folded around creamy feta. Crack open a crispy falafel ball, and you'll see the equally herbaceous hue of ground chickpeas and favas tinted vivid green with cilantro.
There are seemingly endless delights from breakfast and lunch I could linger over, from pastry chef James Matty's gorgeously vented jalousie filled with spiced apples to the ma'amoul semolina shortbread stuffed with dates and walnuts to the myriad variations on the man'oushe, like the one with tangy labne yogurt, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, and mint.
But the recently debuted dinner menu shows a wider breadth of possibilities. I expect Suraya to make a fabulous kafta kebab. (It does). But the unexpected halibut kebabs were also amazing. So was the whole dorade covered with the unique complexity of harra sauce, a spicy tomato-pepper stew thickened with garlic and walnuts. The kawarma lamb neck, cured in baharat spice for days, then rendered in its own steam for hours, is lamb's tender answer to pork belly. I've been ruined for sauteed chicken livers forever now that I've had Suraya's perfectly pink nuggets glossed in a wickedly sweet-tart pomegranate molasses that cut their gamy savor. With its coal-blistered skin and lemony-garlic tang, the grilled whole poussin was also irresistible, which I pulled off the bone with a fistful of fries and dipped in garlicky white toum paste.
For dessert, it's hard to pass on a favorite classic, the kanafeh, a warm pastry of shredded phyllo kataifi with a molten sweet cheese core, a cruet of rose blossom syrup on the side, and a sesame-speckled mini-pita called kaak to wrap morsels of it up like a sandwich. The traditional clotted cream called ashta is churned into ice cream for a seasonal "verrine" parfait swirled with rhubarb, candied pine nuts, and frothy orange blossom sabayon.