A worthy detour on the road to Damascus ♦
We don’t often find ourselves in Sarita Vihar, but Surya Sweets – a restaurant run out of a budget hotel for Middle Eastern medical tourists – was always reason enough to navigate the truck traffic and the potholes. On a recent expedition to the rapidly urbanising area behind Apollo Hospital, we were confronted by a shuttered door to the large basement room, which once boasted wall-to-wall prints of Damascene plazas, counters full of baklava, nuts and bread, hookahs, and seating arrangements of office chairs and tables. Happily, we were directed to the rooftop of the hotel next door where Asharq Al-Awsat is a hub of activity in an otherwise quiet back alley.
The small indoor area and large terrace are reminiscent of Indian Coffee House, with a view that is unromantic, but sublime: half-built flats sprawling out to one side; sporadic clumps of greenery and the defunct Ferris wheel built to emulate the London Eye dotting the vista towards the Yamuna riverbed. The name translates to “The Middle East”, but the simple description is apt. The staff, some familiar from Surya Sweets, are from various countries – Iraq, Jordan, Syria – though most are Palestinian.
Make your way through the menu with the help of a smartphone, gestures and a healthy sense of adventure; most staff don’t know much English or Hindi as the patrons are mostly Arabic-speaking hotel guests. Ask for the fabulously buttery, tahini-spiked fava (“ful”) dip if they have it. Otherwise, the fries are crisp, the hummus fresh, the salads (fattoush, tabulah) large, citrusy and beautifully garnished, the moutabel (eggplant dip) sharp and garlicky, and the falafel, without reservation, the best in the city.
We’ve consistently found the vegetarian fare better than the non-veg, but certainly some of the meat dishes are worth trying; they are unlike anything you’ll find at a typical multi-cuisine restaurant that purports to serve Middle Eastern food. There’s soupy meat and chicken tashrib, upside-down rice and meat dishes called maqlubah, coal-grilled chicken called farooj mashwi, and other tikka-style meat plates. Like offal? Try the sheep liver sautéed with tomatoes and onions. Call in advance or order out (you’ll pay taxi charges) to try the stuffed lamb dish (mahshi kharoof).
Cap your meal with a cup of tea – even the Taj brand brew tastes unfamiliar – or linger over the smoothest shisha in town with friends. Getting to “The Middle East” is a bit tricky. Go south down Mathura Road, turn left towards Noida after the Jasola-Apollo Metro station and flyover, take a U-turn, and then the second left. Turn at Aggarwal Sweets and keep an eye out for the Om Palace sign to your right. Bon voyage, and bon appetit.