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Voracious: Syriana offers a taste of the Mediterranean

Allan Reid’s restaurant column
The Olive Fatayar, an intensely flavourful mix of green olives, coloured bell peppers and onions seasoned with oregano and pomegranate molasses, is one of the dishes Allan Reid tried at Syriana restaurant. (Allan Reid)

One of the great pleasures of living in Victoria is the plethora of ethnic eateries. And still, there is always room for one more. Last month, I wrote about the city’s first Pakistani restaurant: Biryani Palace. This month I’ve found Syriana Restaurant and Catering. Safaa Naeman and her family arrived in Canada six years ago, having fled war-torn Syria. Falling back on her culinary skills and Syrian recipes, she and her family founded Safaa Syriana Catering, opening a Facebook page in March of 2021, and an Instagram account in 2022. But this April 23, this hard-working family has realized their dream of establishing Victoria’s first Syrian restaurant.

At a quick glance, Syriana’s menu seems familiar. Greek Dolmades, Baklava and Greek Salad. Lebanese Hummus, Baba Ghanoush, Tabbouleh and Falafel. Even the Lahme Ajin is similar to Lebanese flatbread, or Mana’eesh. Levantine flatbreads predate Italian pizza and their inspirations can be found at several establishments throughout the city. Similarities among Greco-Levantine cuisines harken back to the shared Hellenistic culture established by Alexander the Great way back in the fourth century BCE. A culture that has survived and developed through 2400 years of Roman domination, the Byzantine Empire, Islamic Caliphates and the Ottomans. But despite similarities, there are differences of name that often imply subtle variation.

Elegant cut stone floors and countertops, and intricate scrollwork panels, present an elegant dining experience, but Syriana is certainly a fast-food restaurant. Orders are placed at the counter and a ticket with a call number is produced. Grab your cold drink from the fridge, if you paid for one, and find a table in the sunny south-facing dining room. Your meal will be quickly plated, and your number called. Go up to the counter to fetch your tray.

On my first visit, I chose from the Entrées selections on the back of the menu. The Rice and BBQ Meat Combo ($22.50) offers a choice of two out of three meat options: beef kabab, chicken kabab, and spiced chicken thigh. I opted for the two chickens. This price also offers a choice of salad—I opted for Tabbouleh—and a choice of bottled drink. Saffron rice dotted with kernels of corn and capers is a welcome upgrade over the usual plain white served elsewhere. The chicken thigh, a boneless strip of dark meat brushed with a spiced BBQ sauce before cooking boasts the stronger flavour of dark meat and was tastier and moister than the chicken kabab, which provided a skewer’s worth of overcooked and dried-out cubed white meat. A gush of water washed down every mouthful.

But the Tabbouleh was magnificent. Finely cut parsley dominates this salad enhanced with finely diced tomato, shredded romaine and green onion. It is lightly tossed in a mint-lemon dressing that imparts a delightfully refreshing zing. And parsley offers an added benefit: it actually freshens the breath.

On my second visit, I opted for a pastry. The savoury Olive Fatayar ($6.25) is similar in form to a galette, but double-pointed, like an eye. It is filled with an intensely flavourful mix of green olives, coloured bell peppers and onions seasoned with oregano and pomegranate molasses. One is perfect for a light lunch or snack. I paired it with a small tub of Moutabbal ($8.50), similar to a garlic-infused Baba Ghanoush (also on the menu) served with pita. For the adventurous coffee lover Arabic Coffee ($3.75) is brewed intense and served on the grounds in a copper pot, similar to Turkish Coffee.

Familiar, similar, but subtly different. Syriana is definitely worth a try, but avoid the chicken kabab.

Syriana Restaurant and Catering

250-858-8796 / 1258 Esquimalt Road