One might assume that our choice to name a Syrian restaurant Seattle Met’s 2013 Restaurant of the Year was a sympathetic one, based on that country’s recent suffering. In fact, Mamnoon celebrates the region with such loving exuberance, a person might reasonably conclude the war-ripped land were the most contented on earth.
The Syria of owners Wassef and Racha Haroun shines in dishes earthy and real, zesty and bright. If food can bear pride of place—and by place I mean the overlapping Middle Eastern tribes and cultures and countries whose cuisines Mamnoon freely borrows, layers, and reinterprets—this food does. Here, at a table groaning under small plates of Persian soup, Lebanese salad, and Syrian rice, one can taste Middle East harmony.
The Syrian-born Harouns embody that harmony: he reared in Lebanon, she of Iranian heritage, both educated in the U.S. where they met. They raised three kids across the globe—in Abu Dhabi, Paris, and Seattle, where Wassef’s 11-year post as a program manager at Microsoft infected his family both with a love of the Northwest and a longing for him to find work that would leave more time for kin and community.
The dream of a restaurant was born. They wanted to base it on bread, the Levantine staple so closely bound up with existence itself that the Egyptian word for it is also the word for life.
Not that the Harouns knew thing one about owning a restaurant. So they brought Microsoft resolve to the endeavor, casting aside the ego that so often besets restaurateurs in favor of good, old-fashioned research. They hired consultants: The architect, Eric Cobb, had designed their modern Leschi home. The menu consultant, Barbara Massaad, is the Lebanese food historian who had written Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery, the bible of the topped flatbreads the Harouns envisioned as their menu’s centerpiece.
To find their chef they polled food people they admired, until Eric Tanaka—Tom Douglas’s right-hand man—mentioned the company’s former executive pastry chef. Garrett Melkonian had worked in high-end San Francisco restaurants, he knew his bread, he was looking for an exec chef post. And—o fate!—he’d grown up in an Armenian-Egyptian-Lebanese family in LA, helping his Egyptian grandmother line her pots with grape leaves for the yalanji she’d make for the friends and family who filled the house on weekends.
One could say this was the job Melkonian was born to have. And so before the restaurant even had a kitchen to cook in, the Harouns trained him in their own, flying in both of their mothers, even Barbara Massaad, to be his trainers. Under their tutelage he refined his knowledge of breads, yes—the coaster-size pitas and the custard-rich Syrian olive oil bread khobz bi fleifleh and the humble mana’eesh flatbreads that would come topped with heady blends of minced lamb and Aleppo chilies, or mild Jibneh Arabieh cheese and olives and herbs.
But from his tutors he also absorbed a more holistic understanding of Eastern Mediterranean cuisines, learning the fierce spice palette of the Armenian kitchen, an Egyptian meal’s trademark rusticity, that the Lebanese do the best meze in the Middle East. He and Massaad found an artisan producer in Beirut to mix a za’atar—the herb blend common across the Arab world, based on wild thyme and citrusy sumac—just for Mamnoon.
Melkonian broke a lot of emulsions on his way to the shish taouk, or garlic-marinated chicken, and he learned that mastering a simple bowl of muhammara—the spicy sweet spread of intricately balanced cumin, garlic, red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses—is not simple in the least, but a feat of extreme complexity. It’s that complexity, along with the startling otherness of these flavors to a Western palate, that lend Mamnoon a status rare among Seattle restaurants. It’s genuinely exotic.
Mostly Melkonian absorbed the Harouns’ unusual mandate: to connect their adopted home with the homeland they love, by serving the home cooking they grew up with—dishes not typically seen in restaurants. A dish like bateresh, in which strained yogurt and charred eggplant make a creamy bed for minced lamb, is unique to the domestic kitchens of one area of coastal Syria. Mamnoon has its drama-dining showstoppers—its sayadieh is roasted halibut over smoked green wheat, which the waiter pours with a little pitcher of spiced jus—and more of those will come, as Melkonian seizes more opportunities to fuse and experiment. But the steadier drumbeat reveals humbler, even populist, priorities. The daytime takeout window serves hummus and salads and folded mana’eesh flatbreads and other street food at street ($7-ish) prices. The servers to a one evince the Middle Eastern cultural values of deep hospitality and genuine goodwill. Even the name Mamnoon means “thankful.”
None of which would much stand out in a more modest setting. But Mamnoon, across from Melrose Market on Capitol Hill, is as sleek and modern as any restaurant in Seattle. Its chic assemblage of cool grays and windows and brick is interrupted by flashes of color at a Moroccan-tiled communal table in front, on cluster-of-grape chandeliers made of Syrian hand-blown glass above. In back, near the half-open kitchen, a soft-seated lounge area sits divided from the dining room by a wood lattice panel.
From a distance that panel is the sort of filigreed screen common from Marrakech to Yemen, used to enable both air circulation and privacy. The Islamic eight-point star often provides the pattern. But look closely at Mamnoon’s and see a variation on that theme, in which the eight-point stars are employed like pixels to create an image. Look at it awhile, and what emerges is the Pacific Northwest rain forest.
It’s subtle, the way the Harouns like their metaphors. “When you eat food, that experience is visceral,” Wassef reflects. “You taste it in your mouth, your synapses fire, your brain remembers, and for the most part that memory will last forever. That’s an important point—that someone in Seattle can have the same experience as someone in Damascus, at a visceral level. They just got connected.”
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Seattle Met.