Al Shami Syrian restaurant serves Middle Eastern breakfasts and banquets in Merrylands

Al Shami is one of the very few Sydney restaurants that promotes itself as a Syrian-food specialist.

Callan Boys


Middle Eastern$

Gee, they know how to put on a good breakfast spread in Syria. There’ll be warm sheets of flatbread, crunchy falafel and sharp, snappy pickles. There’ll be stewed broad beans humming with lemon and garlic, and toasted bread covered with steamed chickpeas, tahini yoghurt and cumin (better known as fatteh). Palm-sized slabs of soft, white cheese can make an appearance, too, and maybe a shakshouka of poached eggs, tomatoes and medieval spices. If you’re lucky, there’ll be the ancient scarlet-red sausage, sujuk.

At Al Shami, directly opposite the Merrylands train station, you’ll find all of the above on the breakfast menu, and the breakfast menu doesn’t start until 11am. As a person who prefers to spend most of his Saturday morning in bed with a David Astle crossword, Al Shami is my kind of place.

It’s also one of the very few Sydney restaurants I know that promotes itself as a Syrian-food specialist. While Middle Eastern restaurants are thick on the ground, their menus are often a grab bag of the Levant’s greatest hits. Shawarma, kofta, hummus and lots of pita in place of utensils. Al Shami is a terrific place to wrap grilled meat in bread, too, but there are also hard-to-find Syrian home-style dishes with more garlic and yoghurt than a Greek wedding.

There’s almost always a family spanning four generations at one of the long tables, usually swapping stories over a spread of vine leaves, skewers and kibbeh.

Chef Ali Snoubar co-founded the restaurant in 2014 after leaving Damascus to cook in Qatar and, later, South Korea. (Snoubar’s Korean mates, Ji Yun Lee and Sang Que Lim, are backers in the business.) His food was an instant hit with other local Syrians who’d fled their home country due to war and the Assad regime, and Al Shami moved to a much larger site in 2017.

It’s a bright and welcoming place, with a backlit map of Syria hanging proudly on one wall detailing the country’s 14 provinces. Tables, chairs and cutlery are reasonably no-frills, but there’s also a mosaic marble fountain that wouldn’t be out of place in an Arabian embassy.

If Snoubar isn’t in the kitchen, he’s likely chatting to regulars and offering cups of tea to anyone who looks as if they’re approaching the end of their shish tawook. A complimentary tea cart is also parked near the entrance, seemingly for any passersby to help themselves to a cup, not just guests. Syrian hospitality makes a strong argument for increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake.

Go-to dish: Fried kibbeh.
Go-to dish: Fried kibbeh.Jennifer Soo

Whether it’s your first visit to Al Shami or your third in a week, you’re going to want the fried kibbeh (four for $16) – little spice-powered torpedoes of minced lamb and pine nuts with a nutty, burghul-wheat shell you could tap morse code on.

If you’re there for a Syrian breakfast, fatteh shamiya ($20) doused with cumin is another essential. Olive oil is mixed with chickpea cooking water to create a milkier style of fatteh than the many-textured version that’s more common in Egypt.

There’s almost always a family spanning four generations at one of the long tables, usually swapping stories over a spread of vine leaves, skewers and kibbeh nayeh (the Middle East’s more rugged answer to steak tartare).

The Al Shami mixed plate is designed to share between two.
The Al Shami mixed plate is designed to share between two.Jennifer Soo

Couples can share a condensed version of the banquet with the “Al Shami Mixed Plate” ($38) featuring grilled sticks of marinated chicken, lamb and kofta, plus tabouli, hummus, toum and a particularly punchy baba ganoush, not to mention two squat falafel. They’re not quite as shatteringly crunchy as the falafel at Hammoud 1 in Liverpool (my current gold standard for falafel in Sydney), but they do the job.

On one recent solo mission (stupid idea, don’t come here by yourself), I inhaled the $25 shakeria soup – a molten-hot bowl of garlic and olive oil-slicked yoghurt smothering one big, fat, formidable lamb shank. Close your eyes and don’t think of the kilojoules. Just as comforting is Snoubar’s moussaka ($28), rich with lamb and a wallop of tomato paste. Remove the fried eggplant and you almost have a bolognese.

It’s a big menu, though, and there’s more I want to explore: the mansaf lamb – Jordan’s national dish – with a fermented goat’s milk sauce ($36); deep-fried, cheese-filled sambousek pastries ($16); and $5 take-home serves of muhallabieh, Lebanon’s number-one milk and rosewater dessert. If there’s one thing I like more in winter than a late falafel breakfast, it’s sitting on the couch with pistachio-topped pudding.

The low-down

Vibe: Long family lunch where there’s always more flatbread

Go-to dish: Fried kibbeh ($16)

Drinks: Arabic coffee, tea and soft drinks; no alcohol or BYO

Cost: About $60 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

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Callan BoysCallan Boys is editor of SMH Good Food Guide, restaurant critic for Good Weekend and Good Food writer.

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