Corona del Mar ain't exactly known for its diversity—this is the city, after all, that spawned infamous Newport Beach City Councilman Dick Nichols, he of the complaint last decade that too many Mexicans sat on the grassy areas of Corona del Mar State Beach. Yet this toniest of Old OC neighborhoods can now boast of the second Syrian restaurant in Orange County, the aptly named Damasq Cafe. It's run by Jamal Diab, who first gained local fame as an honest-to-goodness butler at the Resort at Pelican Hill. He opened this tiny restaurant last year—just three tables, a kitchen and some lean-to counters ringing the outside windows.
Damasq Cafe is understanding of its surroundings, so you're not going to get the encyclopedic experience of OC's other Syrian spot, Anaheim's Aleppo's Kitchen. There are breakfast sandwiches of turkey sausage and omelet, though Diab wraps them in pita bread. He sells the expected kebabs, shawerma and falafel—all delicious, all accompanied by a thundering toum (garlic sauce) that'll flare your nostrils like a good wasabi. But Diab is at his best when he's cooking the specialties of his homeland. A plate of sautéed eggplants is almost as hearty as meat, spiced beautifully and served alongside perfectly tart tabbouli. He also prepares muhamara, Aleppo's famous walnut-chile-pomegranate spread: slightly spicy, quietly sweet, better than hummus by miles. And the fried kibbeh, a carnivorous version of falafel made with bulgur wheat and beef, is a crunchy paradise.
Order these specialties because it seems not enough people are. Every time I've stopped by Damasq Cafe, the kitchen doesn't have any of the eggplant or zucchini yillanjis, vegetables stuffed like Diab's delicious grape leaves. I've yet to try the baked kibbeh, even though it's advertised on the takeout menu (tellingly, none of the Syrian meals are on the marquees that people order from). I've also never seen other eaters scarf down the rarities I just described—but at least the place is crowded, ensuring Damasq's future. Get Diab cooking more of his cuisine, let the man expand, and we just might get a Little Arabia-By-the-Sea—how about that, Mr. Nichols?
Damasq Cafe, 3601 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 873-5425; www.damasqcafe.com.