There is a new restaurant and grocery in town. It has that new restaurant feel. They opened May 27th and have already gained a loyal customer base with still half empty walls and no sign out front.
The service can be a bit awkward as roles (food prep, register, office) are not quite sorted. But the owners and the staff are engaged, the food is good, and the dates are flying off the shelves.
Sumac serves fresh quick food for lunch and dinner and sells a variety of groceries (dates, dried figs, pickles, frozen okra, spices), halal meats (halal chicken nuggets!) and, most wonderfully, Halloom (which is cheese built for the BBQ. Yup. It is cheese you can grill. Grilled cheese, hold the bread!).
The reaction from lunch patrons can be amalgamated into one simple formula: “I’ve been waiting X years for this since I moved here from Y.” One woman, originally from Saudi Arabia, said she has been missing real shawarma for 16 years. But no longer.
Co-owner Roxanne Jaml says, “Our shawarma is pure Arabic style. Ours is the real deal. Exactly what you would get if you were over in the Middle East. In Canada, we want big portion sizes, so Shawarma has been stuffed with salads and all sorts of things.”
At Sumac, it is simple; shaved rotisserie chicken with soft french fries and pickles wrapped in a flour tortilla with a little oil and then grilled. The flavours of the chicken, garlic, pickle all come through while the fattoush (chopped salad with toasted pita) or stuffed grape leaves or tabouleh or hummus are left on the side along with a few green olives sprinkled in the namesake spice, sumac.
Syrian cuisine tends to have a lot less spices than some of the other regional cuisines. “For example,” says Roxanne, “if you eat Egyptian food it will be quite spicy. Syrians will keep the recipes simple [and] don’t like to throw so many flavours in there. Just a few and let you taste them.”
Though Roxanne and Tarek Hani Jaml, her husband and business partner, are making at least one anomalous fusion dish (Shawarma Poutine), it is, other than that, a straightforward Middle Eastern menu.
Roxanne is originally from St John’s (“down the road, girl!”) and Tarek is from Syria. They met while working in Abu Dhabi where Tarek ran his own business for ten years and Roxanne was teaching math, science, and English in the public school system.
Upon coming back home to Newfoundland to settle and raise their family, Tarek had some time to spend with his three kids while waiting for his Permanent Residence to come through (during that process you are usually allowed to stay in the country but often cannot work).
When it did, they were ready with a plan to open a grocery import to cater to the growing population of new Canadians from the middle east.
They found the location in Torbay Road Plaza, which they liked because it is close to many muslim and Arab communities who would be familiar with (indeed, missing) the specialty groceries, it had plenty of parking, and it was surrounded by a variety of offices and other businesses. Tarek likes the opportunity to “get other people from other cultures to try our food.”
Preparing their own food was not part of the plan but the spot had been a Quizno’s and was all set up for it. Though Tarek does some of the cooking, it mostly falls to their chef, Tamara Aywadoughli, A Syrian-Armenian who came to Newfoundland as a refugee.
Tarek says most of their employees are refugees. Roxanne, who writes the recipes, keeps it simple and authentic. Tarek says, “she is very picky with her choices.” She also persuaded her favourite restaurants back in Abu Dhabi to share recipes with them.
The restaurant has been a hit and has already expanded into a catering business, handling events of over 100 people. They will be steadily increasing their grocery stock and, if all continues to go well, they may eventually open a second restaurant.
But for now, they will get a sign put up, and make sure their doors are open to all who wander in. Tarek and Roxanne are putting out great food and a message, “We have the best shawarma in town, well… in Canada! Come [and get] to know us; our culture; how we treat people; how we are serving people.”