Fresh take on Syrian cuisine


Olive Oil Ice-Cream. — Photos: AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

The vacant shoplot near Leen’s Middle East Kitchen seemed like a sign from above for Ameer Alzalek when he was mulling over expansion after hitting success with his first restaurant, Leen’s.

Ameer opened SAJ Bistronomy by Leen’s at end of last year, and like Leen’s, it also features a brick oven where puffed-up Syrian breads dusted with black sesame are constantly turned out.

A point of difference I noted when the breads were served with the Smoked Chilli Hummus was that it was all-over crispy, unlike what I had at Leen’s.

Grilled Lamb Ribs.Grilled Lamb Ribs.

Apparently, most customers prefer them crispy.

I like them a little crisp, but still soft and fluffy inside, and Ameer agrees – just so you can easily pick up the creamy hummus with it.

The Smoked Chilli Hummus here has a well of charred chilli paste, pickled olives, mixed herbs like daun selom (Chinese celery) and finished with coriander oil.

Beef Tongue Pide.Beef Tongue Pide.

It’s smoky, a little tart with a little heat from the chilli − quite different from Leen’s.

Tabbouleh is usually a salad of chopped up parsley, bulgur, tomato and onion, with a dressing of olive oil and lemon.

Here, it is transformed into round balls of mixed vegetables, green pepper, bulgur, walnuts, olive oil, lemon juice and pomegranate juice, each laid on a shiso leaf.

Tabbouleh given a new spin.Tabbouleh given a new spin.

Altogether it is nutty, a little crunchy thanks to the bulgur, while the shiso leaf imparts a fresh fragrance to this perky appetiser.

Hokkaido Scallops Crudo presented slices of raw scallop topped with salmon roe alternating with thin slices of pickled radish, surrounding a sauce of passionfruit and mango with a trickle of soya sauce for umami.

It’s a delicate, textural delight with oomph from the scallop and sauce.

Smoked Chilli Hummus with crisp Syrian bread.Smoked Chilli Hummus with crisp Syrian bread.

The Shish Rubyan is colourful and pretty, with prawns fanning out on an espuma of dashi, pumpkin and smoked coconut.

The prawns are seasoned with herbs and spices and torched before serving.

It is a touch of Japanese amid Syrian flavours that works brilliantly.

Crispy Syrian Rice, a popular dish at Leen’s, is also on the SAJ menu.

Hokkaido Scallops Crudo.Hokkaido Scallops Crudo.

I’ve had it three times at Leen’s and I would still order this.

You bite into crispy rice and rice scented with the mix of 11 different spices, among them are cumin, paprika, turmeric and pepper. Slices of roasted chicken thigh, pickled cucumber and beetroot are laid over the rice,

then finished with tzatziki and harissa sauce.

There are also crushed peanuts for that added crunch.

Together, it’s a sublime combination boasting colour, texture as well as spiced and tangy flavours.

Baklava cheesecake.Baklava cheesecake.

We also had Grilled Lamb Ribs, smoky and moist with a unique spice marinade.

It’s best eaten with the hand, tearing the luscious tender meat from the bone. A fresh mint salad complete this dish.

You couldn’t fault the Beef Tongue that was so incredibly tender, with slices laid over stracciatella cheese on a pizza dough.

Crispy Syrian Rice.Crispy Syrian Rice.

The usually tough tongue had been marinated with spices, soya sauce and pomegranate sauce and slow-cooked overnight. A bowl of mushroom pickles was served with it, lending the ox tongue a tangy balance.

Dessert was an unusual Olive Oil Ice-Cream and Baklava Cheesecake to end our Syrian meal.

The ice-cream topped with poached apricot puree on a base of crumble, was fine and subtle while the light Baklava Cheesecake had a pistachio crust, a topping of rose and pistachio, with thin baklava filo pastry at the edges.

Food at SAJ is but a gentle introduction to Syrian food through Ameer’s interpretation, and certainly a most delightful culinary journey to remember.

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