Students and Saudi princes alike are streaming downtown to Gulf House, a new spot for lesser-known Arabian Gulf cuisine.
Earlier this year, Fatima Daham and her husband, Khaled Meaither, were eating lunch in the Eaton Centre, discussing their dilemma. For months, they had planned on opening a restaurant featuring the foods of their native Arabian Gulf culture, but there was one major hurdle to clear. “One thing about Saudis our age is that we’re spoiled,” said Meaither. “No one knows how to cook because everyone has cooks at home.” That day, they overheard an older woman at a nearby table speaking in a Saudi accent. Her name was Om-Mathab (literally “Mathab’s mother”), and she had moved to Toronto because her son was studying here. It turned out that Om-Mathab was an accomplished cook who was happy to help the young couple out. That chance encounter formed the official start of Gulf House, an Arabian Gulf* restaurant that opened this past September on Yonge Street, just north of Bloor.
Unlike the more familiar food of Lebanon, Morocco, or even Egypt, this cuisine is a bit of an enigma to most diners. Food stories out of the region tend to focus on over-the-top, petro-fueled indulgences, like $1,000 gold-leafed cupcakes or restaurants with actual helipads. Friends who have lived in Dubai and Saudi Arabia speak about the world-class Italian, Thai, or sushi they can eat there, but rarely say a thing about the local cuisine. Daham and Meaither set out to change that.
Though she was born in Kuwait City, Daham (and her younger brothers, Mohammed and Ali, who also run the restaurant) grew up in Ottawa, where the family moved after Iraq’s invasion in 1991 and where she practised as a social worker. Her husband was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in southern California, and spent several years in the Saudi diplomatic service, both at the embassy in Lebanon and for the government in Riyadh. He came to Toronto in 2010, after his sister received a scholarship from the Saudi government to study here. Because she was single, the scholarship was contingent on her being accompanied by a male relative, and Meaither arrived as his sister’s chaperone. “The community of Gulf Arabs has been growing a lot here since 2009,” he said, largely due to American-visa restrictions on Saudi students following the 9/11 attacks. “Now, there are thousands of Saudi students studying in Toronto,” many of them accompanied by relatives from back home. The couple decided to leave their jobs to open a restaurant that could serve this growing community and showcase Arabian Gulf fare to a wider audience. It was a smart gamble: Om-Mathab, who helms the kitchen, brags that they go through a lamb and a half each day.
Gulf House offers customers comfort food in an atmosphere that’s familiar. The restaurant features booths with high walls (for families who want privacy) and a large section in the back with Arabian-style seating—low sofas arranged around a carpet, where big groups of diners can sit cross-legged on the floor. Unlike back home, men and women are welcome to mix freely.
Most meals start with pots of Arabic coffee—a light, sweet blond roast scented with cardamom—which is poured into small porcelain glasses and served with dried dates. A good place to begin is with the jereesh, a bowl of cracked wheat cooked in yogurt and topped with soft, golden sautéed onions, cumin, and coriander. It’s warm and creamy and tangy, almost like a breakfast porridge mixed with mashed potatoes. That same dish forms the base of mathlootha, a layered stew of wheat, fragrant basmati rice, a thin Saudi bread called gersan (like a stretchy, light roti), and either tender chunks of stewed lamb or a juicy, blistered-skin chicken leg, grilled over an open flame. From a country known for its blazing heat, it’s a strangely perfect winter dish.
There’s also garlicky chicken shawarma, rolled tight, and served for $2.99 a piece (or $4.99 for two, with a drink). But the can’t-miss dish at the restaurant is motabaq, a whole-wheat crepe that’s folded over a filling of sautéed ground beef, chili peppers, fresh parsley, and green onions, given a squeeze of lemon juice, then eaten with your hands.
The most popular item at Gulf House—by a landslide—comes at the end of the meal. Khaliya is a baked honeycomb of sweet brioche-dough balls, each filled with cream cheese and drizzled with melted honey. The dessert costs $5.99 and arrives on a plate warm, sticky, and smelling like heaven. Everyone tears off little knots of dough to dip into coffee or tea. Within weeks of opening, the khaliya became such a hit that Gulf House was forced to limit each customer to just three.
Daham has noticed that the restaurant’s crowd has started expanding beyond the Gulf State students who learn English nearby, and she’s eager to see her region’s appeal reach a new demographic. “It took a while for us to feel that our food was good enough and that people actually liked it,” she said. But then the nearby Four Seasons Hotel started sending over guests, including members of the Saudi royal family, who came in with their bodyguards and complimented the khalia. “Now that we’re confident in the kitchen, we’re going to try to get other cultures to come in.”
842 Yonge St., 416-551-9933.
CORRECTION, NOV. 18, 2013:
The original version of this article—as it appeared here and in the Nov. 14, 2013, print edition of The Grid
—made multiple references to the Persian Gulf; they have been changed to Arabian Gulf, to reflect how the region is more commonly referenced in Arab countries.