x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Restaurant favoured by heads of state couldn’t stand heat in Syria, so moved the kitchen to Iraq

The Syrian restaurant Naranj has been frequented by prominent figures, including Queen Sofia of Spain and UN secretary general Kofi Annan. But the civil war has taken its toll on business, so the owner decided to open a branch in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Talal Nizam has 60 people employed at the newly opened Naranj restaurant in Erbil, Iraq.
Talal Nizam has 60 people employed at the newly opened Naranj restaurant in Erbil, Iraq.

ERBIL, IRAQ // Bashar Al Assad still dines twice a week at his favourite restaurant in Damascus (since you ask, he loves the cracked wheat), but as civil war ravages Syria his fellow diners are fewer in number at every meal.

Gone are the days when the kitchen at Naranj cooked for Queen Sofia of Spain, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. Thirty-seven heads of state have dined there, but the conflict has cost the restaurant 70 per cent of its trade.

You cannot, however, keep a good chef down. And Talal Nizam, even if he says so himself, is a very good chef indeed.

Faced with economic disaster at the restaurant he founded in 2007, Mr Nizam has taken his pots and pans and 60 of his staff and opened a branch of Naranj 750 kilometres away in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I had a lot of employees in Syria,” he says. “They were with me in the successful times, and I didn’t want to fire them in the hard times. So I thought the only solution was to branch out.”

The upmarket Naranj is far from out of place in an upmarket area of Erbil, between the English Village and the Empire World residential community. Ferraris are a familiar sight, and many members of Kurdish high society and expatriates live near by.

The restaurant is ideally placed to benefit from Iraqi Kurdistan’s wider economic boom, which is fuelling a surge in tourism and hospitality: as many as 250 hotels opened last year alone and Erbil is this year’s Arab Tourism Capital.

Mr Nizam’s family in Syria were involved in the oil trade, but he decided to take a different path. “For me, food is a passion,” he says. “I have 22 cooks in this kitchen. But I am the best.”

He breaks off to attend to a table at which diners consider the stuffed vine leaves to be excessively sour. Mr Nizam agrees with them. “You’re totally right,” he says. “The problem is that 50 per cent of our food supply comes from Syria, the other 50 per cent comes from Kurdistan, which we have no control over. The vine leaves have to come fresh, so we get them from here and they’re too acidic.”

The original branch of Naranj, in the Midhat Pasha area of Damascus, gained international media prominence last year after a photograph emerged of Mr Al Assad and his wife Asma dining with John Kerry in 2009, when he was senator for Massachusetts. Mr Kerry, now the US secretary of state, was discussing the Middle East peace process with the Syrian president.

“Our most notable customer, however, is Queen Sofia of Spain,” Mr Nizam says. “She would come here even when she was on an unofficial visit … when she’s not part of a formal delegation. Just one call and we would reserve the place for her.”

And so the Damascus restaurant’s last remaining “notable customer” is Mr Al Assad himself

“Twice a week, Mr President comes to dine with us at the Damascus branch,” Mr Nizam says.

“He always says put everything aside and give me the burghul. His favourite is the one with meat.

“Every meal is from a different part of Syria. The burghul is the traditional cuisine from Qaradaha – an Alawite region where the president is from. We also serve kebab in a cherry sauce, which is the delicacy of Aleppo.”

Follow us on Twitter @Ind_Insights