New restaurant in Orange is like a trip to Syria

ORANGE — There’s a little slice of Syria in town where the cuisine, music and décor are as authentic Mediterranean as it gets.

Bab Al Salam Restaurant, located in the plaza owned by New Haven Islamic Center at 254 Bull Hill Lane, is owned by Adnan Akil of North Haven, a longtime restaurant builder, who built this — his own place — from scratch.

“Everything here I did by my hand,” including a brick oven that looks like a work of art. “It took me a year.”

Except for a two-item kids’ menu of fries and chicken nuggets, the food in this hidden gem of an eatery is “100 percent” Syrian and made from scratch by a Syrian chef and himself, Akil said.

Akil is the brick oven master — his father owned a bakery in Syria where bread was baked in such an oven — so he makes the meat pies and other dishes requiring that oven. All the dough is homemade.

First thing every day Akil puts fresh chicken and lamb on a spit, all Halal meat, or prepared as by Muslim law.

“Every day the food is new, fresh,” Akil said.

The menu is written in English and Arabic, the music is Arabic, the colors of the restaurant are rich and earthy, and tapestries from Syria adorn the walls, as well as huge photographs from back home of a 1,500-year-old castle, a scene from Damascus, the capital of Syria, and a famous mosque that used to also serve as a church.

The menu includes: maneesh, which is personal-size doughs with various toppings, shawarma, kebabs, falafel, many rice dishes, interesting salads such as cucumber yogurt salad, soups such as angel hair soup, and a broad array of vegetarian offerings, including a baba ghanouj sandwich of eggplant, yogurt, tahini and lemon juice. For dessert there’s baklawa and other pastries Americans might find unique.

“The food is 100 percent Syrian, but this is a hidden gem a lot of Americans will appreciate,” Akil said.

Akil said that while the restaurant draws from those who visit the Islamic Center and worship there, in seven months the restaurant has developed a following of all nationalities, Americans chief among them.

Suleiman Chater, whose family business is Mamoun’s Falafel Restaurant, and who is a longtime friend of Akil, said the food at Bab Al Salam is wonderful and said it’s authentic food from another generation.

“For the new immigrants coming here it’s their kind of food,” Chater said. “They feel like they’re at home when they’re far away.”

Akil, born and raised in Syria, was the middle child of 10 who survived (his mother gave birth to 14). He mastered brick oven cooking while working his father’s bakery. Akil’s mother, he said, was the best at pickling in their small town.

Akil, who came to the United States 35 years ago when he was 26, spent decades in construction, building pizza restaurants and other eateries in New York City, as he was trained in construction in Syria.

Except for one restaurant that he ran briefly when a building customer changed his mind mid-project, this is Akil’s first time being 100 percent on the food end.

Eleven years ago he and his family moved to Connecticut — they now live in North Haven — and a few years ago he got tired of the commute to New York, so he decided to open the restaurant in Orange.

“I like it, but I miss construction,” Akil said of the new endeavor. “It’s more stable at my age and I can stay close to home.”

But what about that feeling when customers love their food?

“It always makes you feel like it’s a dream,” Akil said.