‘She asked why we opened a restaurant if we’re not ready for delivery.’
The staff member placed the receiver down and replayed the phone call for chef Dima. I was not eavesdropping—the dining space at Al Sumac Al Shami is akin to eating in your grandma’s cosy kitchen. Secrets cannot live here.
A hungry customer had called in the hopes of having her dinner delivered. The staff member answering the call calculated the realistic time it would take for the order to be cooked and delivered—one hour. Irritated by the sluggish delivery time, the customer passed her verdict that the restaurant should never have opened in the first place.
Dear Customer, I beg to differ. Let me tell you why the restaurant should have opened as it did earlier this year, all four hundred square feet of it in Al Ain, even though it was unable to deliver your dinner in time.
The restaurant should have opened so you might enjoy a glass of one of the best samovar teas I have had in the country. It cannot be delivered, but is best sipped along with crisp “sambosa,” their taut skins the colour of butterscotch, their bellies piled with a chunky mixture of akkawi, halloumi, feta and bitterly pungent nigella seeds.
Or you might have paired your tea with crumbly pistachio-dusted cookies that rip apart to reveal strings of gooey Turkish delight. Or with a side of friendly banter with the young and chatty Syrian chef at the helm, Dima, who will passionately explain the dishes on her menu to curious diners like me. That evening when you called dear Customer, I savoured my tea with all three.
The restaurant should have opened because it is a small, budding family-style business and not your everyday pizza franchise with an army of delivery boys. It’s Dima’s, not Domino’s. Diners not only run into 27-year-old Dima, who spent her childhood in Al Ain and opened this restaurant inspired by her family recipes, but also her parents, who visit at dinner time to lend a hand. They remind me of my own parents – proud, supportive and always ready to hear my start-up woes when I began my fledgling business.
When Dima had first proposed the idea of her restaurant, her father, a businessman in the very inedible spare parts industry, volunteered to design two desserts for her menu. One was Syrian madlouka. It is made with kataifi noodles softened into a pudding-like base that is capped with a deceptively light cream and a heavy hail of powdered pistachios. The other was the Turkish delight cookie which Dima generously gifted me and a colleague, two new and nameless customers, on our first visit to the restaurant.
One hundred and thirty nine kilometres back in Dubai, I realized that I had forgotten my cookie on the table. I mourned my lost treat incessantly, chiding myself for being so absent-minded. The restaurant should have opened because some experiences had best be left raw, personal, and straight from the heart. The first time I stepped into the restaurant, in between work meetings in Al Ain, Dima was chatting with a lone diner, armed with a broom that she was applying to attack every last speck of dust on the patio.
“Just knock on the glass when you’re ready to order!” she chirped, seating us on one of three doll-sized tables inside and then stepping back out for another round of deep conversation and even deeper cleaning.
The restaurant should have opened because it is the sort of intimate space where you rub shoulders with old friends on your table and with new friends on the neighbouring tables. And because it is not a cookie-cutter concept, but an expression of culinary character that would only grow over time if the neighbourhood lent its support and constructive feedback. We travel abroad to visit restaurants that “locals” have been eating at for decades, even if it means dealing with quirky restaurant owners, intolerable wait times and cramped dining spaces. In fact, the quirkier the better we say, because it’s more “authentic.” But back home, are we willing to extend the same courtesy to our community concepts?
And are we willing to stop rating our restaurants on the speed of their food assembly and portability, which are essentially the same design goals as a frozen dinner purchased in the supermarket?
The restaurant should have opened so you might visit and order a juicy wrap with sumac chicken marinated in the way Dima’s granny would have done. Or you might sample her twist on her mother’s phyllo-crusted dome of ouzi meat and rice. You might share what you liked and what you didn’t – because unlike a big faceless chain, this one has a friendly face that is willing to listen and eager to serve.
The restaurant should have opened so you too might be gifted the cookie that Dima’s father created for the restaurant, the same cookie I abandoned on the table. Four days later, I commissioned my husband to drive me back an hour and half to Al Ain so I could be reunited with what was rightfully mine. The cookie was worth the trip, even more so because I bought seven more as gifts for the worthiest of friends back home.
Al Sumac Al Shami is on Oud Touba Street in Al Ain.