Middle Eastern restaurants, long a welcome presence in Connecticut, lately seem to be multiplying. One of the most intriguing is Bab al Salam, which is located in an Orange plaza owned by the New Haven Islamic Center, which also hosts the Orange Farmers’ Market, a Muslim clothing store, a Middle Eastern market with halal butcher, and meeting spaces for events.
Bab al Salam opened in the middle of January. Owners Adnan Akil, a restaurant builder, and Suloman Chater, a restaurateur, both of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades, sought to replicate the food one might find in metropolises like Aleppo or Damascus in their homeland. They seem to have found a grateful audience in Orange.
The restaurant is relatively narrow and deep. The sun-drenched front half encompasses a open kitchen where one can watch much of the food being prepared. Whole chickens marinated overnight in vinegar, white pepper, garlic and red pepper paste cook on the rotisserie, a couple of specials occupy steam trays, and sweet and savory breads and pastries tempt from glass showcases.
A line of tables on the opposite, scenic-photo-festooned wall are occupied by guests who, like ourselves, like to have a bird’s eye view of all the activity, which includes quite a few people picking up takeout orders. Separated by a high, columned, mahogany-stained divider, the rear half of the restaurant is a quieter, dimmer seating area seemingly sought out by families and folks who presumably prefer greater privacy and distance from the action.
The menu, written in English with Arabic subtitles, is fairly extensive. It includes: soups and salads ($3.95-$5.95); appetizers ($2.95-$6.99) and a mixed appetizer platter (small $9.95/large $13.95); rice dishes ($3.50-$4.50); the flat doughs with savory toppings called mana’eesh ($3-$3.50) and the savory filled pastries called fatayer ($1.50-$1.75); vegetarian ($3.95-$4.95) and meat ($6.50-$6.95) sandwiches; lamb ($14.95) and chicken ($5.95-$14.95) platters, three grilled meat platters ($18.95) and platters for two ($19.95-$34.95); dessert pastries ($2-$3); and finally, hot ($2-$3) and cold ($1.50-$2.50) beverages.
Everything we get to try on our various visits is delicious and supremely fresh, while everything we don’t get to try entices. It occurs to us the foods we’re enjoying originate in the Fertile Crescent, considered the earliest of several cradles of civilization. On our earlier visits, seven grape leaves ($6.99) filled with a rice mixture perfumed with lemon and mint are arranged in a pinwheel. A mini-pizza-like meat mana’eesh ($3.50) is topped with ground beef, onion, tomato and spices. A generously portioned falafel wrap ($4.95) is delightful—the flavors balanced, the chick pea mixture crunchy (we find mushy falafel unpardonable), the pickled vegetables housemade. The perfectly seasoned ground lamb wrap ($6.50) is even better. And we’re fools for the ful mudammas ($4.50), cooked fava beans flavored with diced tomato, parsley and olive oil.
On our review visit, we’re taken great care of by (Turkish) Ayse Yazici. Our appetizer platter ($9.95) teems with muhammara with just a hint of sweetness, perfectly textured hummus, cool refreshing labneh, slightly smoky baba ghanouj, vibrant moutabel, twin grape leaves (these contain meat) and a pair of great olives. Our mixed meat platter ($34.95) overflows with tasty lamb shish kebab and lamb kefta kebab, lemony chicken shish kebab, fragrant chicken shawarma and lamb shawarma, roasted tomato, onion and hot green peppers, and basmati rice. It’s topped with mana’eesh with tomato, parsley and purple onion ($3). Finally, we finish with a flaky, not overly sweet, warbat pastry filled with cheese ($2.50).
“How was everything?” Akil asks afterward. “Did you like it?”
“No,” we demur. “We loved it!”
Bab al Salam, Islamic Center Plaza, 254 Bull Hill Lane, Orange; 475-209-9444