A buzz has surrounded Suraya since details of the multipart Lebanese restaurant were first revealed in 2017. Excitement grew as Nathalie Richan, Roland Kassis, Greg Root, and chef Nick Kennedy unveiled the café and market, and then the dining room and bar, and finally the massive courtyard garden in phases over the last year. The result: Suraya is officially a destination spot, and Eater Philly’s Restaurant of the Year in the 2018 Eater Awards. Here’s why it’s a hit.
1. The versatility
The all-day café trend was already firmly part of Philly’s food scene, with restaurants like Hungry Pigeon and Res Ipsa transitioning from coffee and eggs to lunchtime sandwiches to evening entrees. But Suraya said “not enough.” Along with three services, the restaurant, which spans 12,000 square feet at 1528 Frankford Avenue, includes a market selling spices, oils, chocolates, and ceramics and a massive courtyard garden for drinking and dining outdoors.
“At night, Suraya is definitely a destination. We were talking to some guests the other night who came from an hour and a half away. It’s pretty humbling when you hear that,” says Root. “But during the day, it’s a really cool mix of folks in the neighborhood coming in for coffee in the morning and for lunch.”
Root and his partners at Suraya are still sorting out exactly what they’re doing with the gorgeous garden space, which stretches to Front Street and has its own bar. Live music is definitely on the table. “It’s going to be an oasis here in Fishtown,” Kennedy says.
2. The morning pastries
The light-as-air rose-pistachio cruller was the pastry that first made Philly sit up and pay attention. But that turned out to be just an introduction to Suraya’s morning scene. “A kouign amann fragrant with the heady scent of cardamom was greatness,” Bill Addison wrote in his review of the restaurant for Eater. “The ma’amoul, a domed cookie filled with dates, made me even happier.”
3. The dinnertime mezze
Is there a more enjoyable way to eat than covering a table with small plates and grazing? Suraya is named after Richan and Kassis’ grandmother, who raised the siblings in Beirut. Kennedy drew on their knowledge of Lebanese cooking — with help from their mother, Maude — to create the menu. While the whole grilled dorade is worth making a dinner reservation for, every meal at Suraya should include mezze: baba ganoush, labne, fatteh, kibbeh nayyeh, grape leaves, and more. “One of the great things at a Lebanese table is the mezze is a big part of the meal — putting as many things as possible on the table and having a bite of this, a bite of that,” Root says.
It works because the flavors play off each other, Kennedy adds: “You have a bite of tabbouleh, which is light, fresh and herbal, and the baba ganoush, which is smoky and rich, and then move to the crispy, earthy fried kibbeh.”
4. The traditional cuisine made modern — like in Beirut
“Our goal is to be traditional and authentic, but of course in Lebanese cooking, like anywhere else, one family might have one recipe for baba ganoush, while another family with a different recipe is very adamant that theirs is the right way to make it. Here we add urfa biber — a dried Turkish chili pepper — just because I like that smoky, raison-y flavor,” Kennedy says. “Just like in Beirut, where there’s a very modern dining scene and chefs are taking creative license with traditional dishes and things are evolving, we put our own touches on it.”
5. The Lebanese wines
Wine culture in Philly still has a ways to go — so any restaurant or bar doing something interesting in that department tends to stand out. Suraya’s selection of Lebanese wines from producers like Chateau Musar is a rarity here.
“Chateau Musar, the preeminent winery in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon — they were organic before organic was a thing. They’ve been making wine for a very, very long time,” Root says. “We picked wines that pair very well with the food Nick and his team are putting out.”
6. The Lion’s Milk
Arak, a heady anise-flavored aperitif popular in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, is commonly mixed with water to create a cloudy concoction known as “lion’s milk.” Diners at Suraya can order a 2-ounce pour or a sharable 8-ounce carafe. But there are other ways to use the spirit, as Suraya shows with its arak cocktails, like the Nightingale with apricot, almond, and Contratto.
“Arak is quite strong — it has a lot of personality,” Kennedy says. “I think people are looking to try something different, and when you integrate it into a cocktail it provides another layer of flavor.”
7. The location
For a restaurateur, trendy Fishtown has the right mix of residents and businesses, plus square footage you can’t find in Center City. “The reason why we opened Suraya here and we both live here is that Fishtown has a great residential community, but it also has this business community of creative people and manufacturers living and working right in the neighborhood,” Kennedy says.
The concentration of eateries — for the most part neatly lined up next to each other — make Fishtown an ideal spot for bar- and restaurant-hopping. So while you could happily spend a few hours at Suraya sipping arak, noshing on mezze, digging into lamb kebabs and grilled fish, and devouring a dessert of kanafeh drizzled with rose syrup, if you’re in the mood to spread an evening out over a few locations, this is the neighborhood for it.
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- All Suraya coverage
Suraya is the Eater Philly Restaurant of the Year for 2018. Over the next few months, we’ll be publishing a feature story on each of the winners.