If you ask any foodie in Birmingham where to go for epic Middle Eastern grub, the chances are the name Damascena might crop up. And when I say might I mean absolutely will. Having very much enjoyed my visit to the flagship cafe in Moseley Village earlier this year, I had high expectations of the city centre venue – and didn’t leave disappointed.
Occupying the space once housing the Lisa Shepherd hair salon on Temple Row this independent coffee shop come deli serves Syrian-inspired food, plus desserts and coffee. Set in the heart of the business district, amongst a plethora of boring chain coffee shops, Damascena is a colourful and vibrant gem nestled in the grey. The venue is bigger inside than one might first realise, with a secondary larger seating area set at the back of the cafe. The decor is warm, inviting and absolutely beautiful; the place has real character.
Arriving with my lovely mum – an ideal dining companion thanks to her long term love for hummus and eating food she can’t pronounce – we were seated in the main dining area and given menus. Choosing what to order took us forever – mainly because the menu is jampacked full of delicious dishes, but also because I was rocking a solid 9/10 hangover from my hen weekend in Brighton. We decided to combine some staples (step forward falafel) with some less familiar options. Previous experience reminded me the key to a successful Damascena visit is ordering lots of little plates or a sharing platter; the more very much being the merrier. It’s only when the food is delivered you realise how well-priced this place is based on the portions, but more on that later.
Diners are asked to order at the counter up front (an ideal spot for some baklava perving, see photo below) and the helpful FOH staff will gladly explain any dishes on the menu. They’re a friendly bunch and know their food is worth the hype – I joked that I ‘could eat everything because it all sounds amazing’ and received a knowing nod. Confidence.. I like that.
Being lunchtime the delivery of the food isn’t exactly speedy, but it’s well worth waiting for. As the dishes arrive and begin to cover our table we agree two things: everything smells insanely wonderful, and we’ve probably ordered far too much. You won’t go hungry here, that’s for sure. The Mixed Mezze (£7.95) arrives first and it’s a feast for the eyes. I know mother agrees because she’s got her fingers in the Hummus before I can take my obligatory blogger photos.
Falafel is my first port of call; first in its naked glory then dipped in the Fuul Medames. Fried perfectly with a light, crispy outter casing, inside a delicate warmly spiced chickpea filling awaits. Delicious in its own right it’s also rather wonderful slathered in the rich, dreamy fuul.
The vibrant Fattuush Salad is a glorious sight, with shiny pomegranate seeds nestled like ruby gemstones alongside the salty, creamy feta chunks. A healthy glug of Extra Virgin Olive Oil brings the salad together nicely and provides another layer of flavour. The smooth Hummus offers a delicate savoury flavour (easily the best either of us have had) and ends far too soon. In hindsight I wish I’d ordered the larger bowl, but then it’s well documented I’m a hummus monster.
The M’tabal dip (£3.95) arrived next, served with flatbread. The roasted aubergine, tahini, tomato and yoghurt combination is mixed with plenty of good quality olive oil, ensuring the dip is silky and has plenty of depth in terms of smoky flavour. We ripped chunks of the flatbread and mopped up the whole bowl with delight.
The arrival of the Lamb Shawarma (£4.95) tore my attention away from the dips and, despite looking somewhat uninspiring, the aroma from the wrap changed my mind immediately. Biting through the crispy wrap the slivers of lamb meat were tender, but it’s the garlic dressing that steals the show. Packing a punch and a half, this sauce is not for the faint hearted (or vampires) but it’s quite frankly awesome. The dressing itself is quite thin so be careful about drips on your chin – I personally enjoyed getting messy and ruining nice clothes in the name of lunch. This is by far the best shwarma you’ll find in the city.
Finally our Vine Leaves (£3.20) arrived, along with a Spinach and Feta Fatayer (£1.95) for us to try. Stuffed with herbs and rice, the bitesize parcels were meltingly soft and juicy, with a subtle but tangy flavour. The Fatayer – a savoury pastry filled with spinach, sumac and feta – is a good size for its sub £2 price tag, and offers a contrasting texture to the rest of our mezze.
Full to bursting (didn’t stop us wolfing down some baklava) both mum and I agreed this place has the art of grazing covered. The food at Damascena is suffused with spice and sensual aromatics and offers fantastic fresh flavours that leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. As well as the food, Damascena is big into coffee, and you’ll find various blends including Turkish and Arabian offerings available to try, if that’s your thing. Alternatively there’s a plethora of teas, not to mention fresh juices and milkshakes. We loved the mint and cucumber iced tea, but also enjoyed a fresh mint tea after our meal.
There is one simple reason everyone raves about Damascena: the food is divine. Flavourful, exciting, plentiful and utterly delicious, each dish we tried had its own unique taste. It’s all reasonably priced and the portions and quality are undeniably fantastic. My advice is to create your own mezze and combine different flavours and textures; don’t forget to ask for extra bread to help mop up every last drop.
This place is a total triumph, and having it exclusively in our city makes me proud to be a Brummy, quite frankly.
Damascena, 5-7 Temple Row, Birmingham, B2 5NY
*Disclosure: I was invited to try the food as a guest and the meal was complementary. All opinions, photos and garlic dribble chat remain all mine.. unfortunately for my clothes*