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Submitted by Ann Thurlow

Fadi Malke carefully places a small glass of Arak on the table. “Drink it slowly,” he advices, “it’s very strong—50 per cent alcohol.” The drink tastes like licorice and is as strong as advertised. Fadi suggests having it with shanklish, a salad of cheese, tomatoes and spices. It seems an improbable combination—the tart salad with the sweet drink. But Fadi says it’s what they do in Syria and we’re in a Syrian restaurant, so here goes.

Turns out it’s delicious. But so is everything at Joe’s Mediterranean & Canadian Cuisine.

The name Syria is so fraught with misery these days that it’s hard to remember that it was once home to a vibrant and sophisticated culture. The Malke family, Jozeph and Rana and their three sons, were a part of that culture; the family owned a restaurant in Damascus. Son Bassel pulls out a photo of a bright and lively looking spot, full of customers.

Though Damascus has been spared the worst of the fighting, things got bad. Because he had an aunt here, Bassel decided to go to UPEI to study business. Eventually, the family followed. After Rana catered a Red Cross fundraiser at the Culinary Institute, a number of people suggested that she should open a restaurant. The family had the experience. Son Mike had a culinary degree. They were able to get their hands on the former Maple Grille, with its prime Great George Street location.

They spent months renovating, doing all the work themselves—even painting their own sign. The restaurant today is beautifully decorated, exotic and comfortable all at once.

And the food? There’s enough Syrian to satisfy the curious or the homesick, enough Italian and French to justify the Mediterranean name and enough poutine and burgers to make any Canadian feel at home. Though he’s not a chef, father Joe got in on the act with Joe’s special burger—beef patty with omelet, spices, pickles and more. The chicken Cordon Bleu has proved a winner as has the Chicken Milanese, a chicken breast with tomato sauce and cheese. And the Shish Taouk sub, a big baguette style roll with chicken, cole slaw, fries and pickles (in it, not next to it) is a huge hit. It’s the way they eat it in Syria, Bassel explains. The French colonized Syria after the First World Wat and their culinary influence remains. I’ll admit I was dubious about the sandwich at first: turns out a Syrian shish taouk is the best in town.

In fact, a lot of the food at Joe’s is Syrian—kebab, fattoush, tabbouleh—and a lot of those names sound Lebanese to me. I ask what the difference is. Bassel explains that the difference is slight—a matter of more lemon juice, a different spice. “You have to remember, “he says,” we once shared the same kitchen.”

Joe’s Mediterranean & Canadian Cuisine: 167 Great George Street in Charlottetown

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