By Garrett Melkonian
As told to Molly Sinnott
It’s kind of amazing how so many of the things that we do here and the approach to hospitality and feeding people is pretty much a direct reflection of what I remember from my childhood. Everything always revolved around food and people and cooking was how they showed people love and respect and admiration. It was the metaphorical hug, to have people eat. It’s amazing how much this place has been able to connect me to some of those really vivid memories. It’s wasn’t until I found myself in a situation that is so closely connected to what initially inspired me to cook that I really remembered these things. It was making dolmeh with Racha’s mom and starting to have a flood of memories of watching my grandmother do it and having her teach me how to roll grape leaves. It's that kind of thing that has made everything feel very fortuitous and really come full circle for me. There is a real feeling behind the hospitality that we do here. There’s a sincerity that exists in that culture that’s expressed through food and it’s been remarkable to be able to take all that I’ve learned through food and use it to honor my heritage and who I am.
There’s a difference between feeding someone and celebrating a cuisine. The restaurants that are out there that serve large quantities of very inexpensive Middle Eastern food are not really celebrating the cuisine and they’re not really celebrating the culture. There’s beauty that exists within this food and there’s a level of preparation that must take place. We’re taking something that is inherently family style and rustic and presenting it with an aesthetic and a refinement that doesn’t move away from the fundamentals, but maybe makes it taste just a little bit better or look a little bit more beautiful. To have an outlet to really showcases that and starts to use more celebrated ingredients— local meat and beautiful organic produce— and to bring those elements together is something that hasn’t really been done before with this food. What we do here is very focused. It doesn’t mean that we can’t incorporate the same elements of ‘local, organic, sustainable’ that other Seattle restaurants are depending upon and building their name upon, we use some of that, but we’re doing it in a way that’s intensely focused. We’re working within pretty rigid parameters when you think about it and as much as we might do something that is maybe outside of the box of Middle Eastern cuisine, it still has to have that authenticity.
We’ve changed so much in the last year and I think the evolution will continue. It’s necessary for a restaurant to evolve because if you don’t, you become static and boring and you become an experience that somebody’s already had. Part of the reason we’re able to do what we’re doing now is that there’s a trust that we’ve built that has allowed us a little bit more creative freedom. It’s allowed us to start to pull ingredients that are decidedly northwest—on one plate we are celebrating two places at once. When we first opened, it was really more about celebrating the origins and at points we had to use ingredients that were out of season in order to hit all the authentic dishes. But right now you’re looking at a Middle Eastern restaurant that doesn’t have tabbouleh on the dinner menu. That’s not something that could have happened when we first opened. We had to prove that we could do all of those other things first and provide a sense of comfort through authenticity. But we showed that we are restaurant with sincerity and some semblance of an old soul, so we were able to take the cuisine and push it forward. And I hope that in the future we’ll start to move away from being somewhat of a black sheep of a restaurant. There was a feeling in the beginning that we were a little bit of a novelty. But we’re moving into a place where we’re being taken very seriously as a restaurant, and not just a Middle Eastern restaurant.
I think people who are really observant don’t necessarily look for inspiration but stumble upon it. I could be inspired by a conversation that I have with Racha and Wassef about a memory from their childhood, or it could be a memory of my own, or it could be going to a 7-11 at 3 o’clock in the morning and seeing something that I find really delicious. For me, the most important thing about inspiration is that it requires a harmony between two things: there must be a healthy combination of passion and humility. To be inspired by something is to acknowledge that something or someone has done something that is worthy of dedicating your energy to. And then you must have passion in order to put inspiration into motion. Those two things are at the heart of what we do here. This is a truly inspired restaurant. And everything else sort of stems from there. It comes at the most unexpected times and the most unexpected places as long as you’re open to that.
I really believe that we are at the forefront of the movement for Middle Eastern cuisine. Our restaurant is staying really true to form and doing at a level that the likes of which don’t really exist, but I think that it will one day. In hindsight—and this doesn’t come from a place of arrogance, it’s a hope— I would hope that as the movement starts to take places and this becomes more than just a trend, that we will be considered the restaurant that helped shape that and really set the bar for it. I think we’re really paving the way for something greater. You won’t necessarily see it now and you might not see it a year from now, but there is a much larger thing that is happening. It’s not tangible, but is definitely palpable.