Knife & Fork: Syriana

Birmingham’s own version of the Flatiron Building on the corner of Constitution Hill and Hampton St on the Jewellery Quarter/Newtown border has hosted a number of enterprises over the years but, to the best of my recollection, Syriana Restaurant seems to be one of those which have lasted longest and gives every indication of being a successful operation. I had often passed by and wondered what it might be like. Was it actually Syrian cuisine? What exactly IS Syrian cuisine?

Well, a few months ago, for want of anywhere else able to accommodate two of us at short notice on a Saturday evening, I found myself sampling the cooking which, it transpired, is actually Lebanese/Eastern Mediterranean in style. Given the chance nature of this experience, it turned out to be a very pleasant one. The frontage is not forbidding but neither particularly inviting, the interior is perfectly OK but not exactly luxurious, the place might benefit from a bit of a makeover or, at least, a freshen up: I am inclined to think that the décor is pretty well leftover from its previous incarnation as a straightforward Indian restaurant.

Nevertheless, that first culinary experience must have been good enough to warrant a return visit a few days ago.

The welcome was warm and pleasant, we were made to feel almost as if the staff knew us like regulars, which is always a good start. The place was warm, clean, and comfortable.

For my starter I had Wark Inab, vine leaves stuffed with tomato, rice, parsley and mint, with a lemon and olive oil dressing, served on a bed of green salad. These are similar to Greek Dolmades or Turkish Dolma.

My friend opted for Borak Jobneh, Lebanese pastry filled with mixed cheeses and parsley. The menu described the pastry as “freshly made” but in this case it was a bit leathery as if it had perhaps been reheated or maybe had been sitting for a while. However, once through the tough outer casing, the contents were somewhat delicious.

My vine leaves were a touch overexposed to the dressing but had a nice texture and were very tasty indeed. I began to conjure up memories of eating in warmer climes.

Our main courses were Farrouj Meshwi, a char-grilled baby chicken with baked vegetables, a helping of coleslaw on a lettuce leaf, and garlic sauce; and Lahm Bil Lkhodar, lamb cubes with a selection of seasonal vegetables and rice.

The chicken was full of flavour, a touch on the dry side, but enjoyable nevertheless. Although dryish, the texture nevertheless was good and whatever herbs had been used in the cooking gave a relatively subtle complexity to the dish. The garlic sauce was not particularly overburdened with garlic and, for my taste at least, might have befitted from an extra clove or two.

The cubes of lamb were described in the menu as “tender”. Often in eastern-styled restaurants lamb is a bit of a disappointment, being regularly tough and chewy. In this case “tender” did indeed mean tender. The meat may not quite have melted in the mouth but it was decently cooked and tasted very good indeed. The rice was fairly light and did not lie at the bottom of the stomach for ages afterwards, as can also often be the case.

This was not intended as a night for a special culinary treat. What we had hoped for was some decently cooked and presented Eastern Mediterranean food and we were not disappointed. After making my notes for this review I had a look on Tripadvisor to see what other people had thought of their visits to Syriana. “Variable” would be the best way to put it, some people almost raving about a wonderful night out while others were rather more negative in their criticism. All that tells me is that people come from all sorts of backgrounds and culinary experiences and with all sorts of expectations. Our experience on the evening was of a decent everyday restaurant which makes its customers very welcome and serves pretty decent food prepared and served in an Eastern Mediterranean style. The ethnic origins of that evening’s customers was pretty varied and that, for me, is often a good sign. These other customers gave every indication of thoroughly enjoying their experience.

On my first visit I had selected a bottle of Lebanese red wine from the restaurant’s small list and it was fine. My experience of Lebanese wines is that they can be pretty undistinguished or extremely good. Think of Chateau Musar, for example, in terms of the latter. There is not a whole lot in the middle: perhaps not entirely surprising, given the country’ recent war-torn history. Unfortunately, the really good ones like Musar are pretty expensive. On this occasion I took my own bottle of “The Parcel Series” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, which did the trick perfectly. This came from Majestic Wine Warehouse at a cost of £13.49 per single bottle or £8.99 if you buy two or more. I do hate that practice, not because it makes me buy more than I want (that is simply not possible where wine is concerned) but because it is frankly bloody irritating.

The cost for starters and mains for two diners was a very modest £27.30 plus tip and wine. Pretty reasonable, I would say, for a decent meal, and well worth making a booking.

Syriana, 1 Constitution Hill, Birmingham B19 3LG. 0121 236 9444

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves