Restaurant critics keep in their heads a running checklist of bad portents, and Mamnoon, the cosmopolitan hot spot across from Melrose Market, was crawling with them: shiny minimalist decor, bevy of beautiful women servers, wall of candles, Famous Guests (a prominent executive, a celebrated radio personality, Tom Skerritt), distractingly throbby technopop. There’s nothing wrong with such noise, but it just doesn’t say authenticity—it says “style over substance.” If not for the Parka People, those sturdy provincials who act as extras in all Seattle scenes, we could have been in Toronto or Buenos Aires or Prague.
Then our small plates, or meze, arrived. A cast-iron skillet was wall to wall with golf balls of dough, khobz bi fleifleh, baked till golden and slathered with fiery red-pepper paste and black sesame seeds. A bowl of muhammara, a rosy dip of pepper paste and walnuts and cumin, was prettied with walnut bits and pomegranate seeds. We loosened chunks of the warm bread, featherweight yet rich as bread pudding, and dredged them through the muhammara, thickly nutty and redolent of bright fruit. None of this food was remotely like anything we’d ever tasted before, in this or any city.
This food—so much for your restaurant critic’s radar—was extraordinary.
Racha and Wassef Haroun opened Mamnoon in November, in homage to their homeland, Syria. Wassef, a Microsoft retiree, was looking to spend more time with family, celebrate his culture, and give Seattle something it lacked. A Middle Eastern restaurant seemed like a great way to do that—never mind that they’d never owned one before.
Their timing coincided with a local surge in Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants—Cicchetti, Golden Beetle, Cafe Munir, Tom Douglas’s upcoming falafel joint. None quite hit the niche the Harouns were looking to fill. They sought to blend urban sophistication with rigorously authentic versions of the food Syrians and Lebanese—whose culinary traditions cross borders—really eat. Much of that food is built on bread, or khobz—the man’oushe flatbread (on the lunch menu it’s in the plural, spelled mana’eesh) that’s topped like pizza with spices and cheeses and meats, the kulage sandwiches made of grilled pita, the focaccia-like barbari flatbread of Iran, the astonishing aforementioned (and must-be-ordered) khobz bi fleifleh, also known as olive oil bread.
Around all this pastry the menu arises in elegant coherence, offering spreads like the yogurt dip labneh or a lemony hummus; enough vegetables to excite herbivores, especially with a lush fried eggplant preparation, fatteh betinjan; or wickedly crusty cauliflower florets served with the tahini-garlic sauce, tarator; soups and salads; and fish and meats including a succulent lamb shank for two in a dark, herby sauce rich as good mole. The Harouns hired Lebanese cookbook author Barbara Massaad as consultant and Tom Douglas pastry alum Garrett Melkonian as chef.
Wise decisions, those—for though in three visits I encountered the occasional overcooked chunk of chicken (shish taouk) or plank of dry barbari or inconsistently seasoned za’atar (the sumac-thyme-oregano condiment of the Eastern Mediterranean), the food at Mamnoon is overwhelmingly winning: nuanced in its spicing and consistently sumptuous without being heavy. I’m thinking now of the samkeh harra, or Mediterranean sea bass, served as a whole fish for two: presented deboned on a platter, its fluffy white meat lavished with hot pepper paste and whole herbs and pine nuts, its crispy, salted skin a perfect foil for its juicy bed of cabbage and mint.
Savoring this sure-handed food, I kept thinking about the Syrian grandmother who had to be back there cooking it, and how she must feel about the steel girders and sleek multicolored-clump-of-grapes light pendants and marble countertops and trompe l’oeil mosaic tables and filigreed wood screens that lent such forbidding chic.
But as I returned I understood that Mamnoon, which means “thankful” in Arabic, belongs to that grandmother. Waiters are uniformly down to earth and informed. Weirdly, our food was never delivered by them, but by the aforementioned fleet of young women who, with near-perfect consistency, brought dishes to the wrong tables and described them inaccurately. A takeout window onto Melrose turns lunchtime salads and dips and kulage grilled sandwiches into humble street food, exotically tasty and underpriced at $4 to $7. A fuller sit-down lunch menu is promised soon.
Across the operation there’s an integrity you just feel, from a menu that lists the dishes by their native names (along with English descriptions)—to its notable lack of French fries. Mamnoon looks like the sort of joint that would build its bar on slick cocktails and crowd-pleasing noshes; instead, it’s a joint without a bar at all—just a lush velour and Persian carpet lounge behind the filigree screen. “Our consultants told us, ‘You’re on Capitol Hill, you need a bar,’” Wassef Haroun explained. “But that’s not common in our culture. And we’re not suffering without one.”
Published: March 2013