Middle Eastern restaurants may now be a dime a dozen in Metro Manila, but only a few have managed to establish top-of-mind recall

Dining in the metro is better than ever. Fueled by a growing economy and a rapidly increasing market for dining out, the demand for high-quality places to eat has grown significantly in recent years. And as travel is made even more accessible to Filipinos, we are also witnessing a growth in sophistication about cuisine among the already large population of diners in the city. When before all restaurateurs had to come up with was a menu’s worth of American, Chinese, Japanese and Italian dishes, the choices have become quite extensive and has included the more “foreign” fares of Thailand, Indo-Pakistan, the Mediterranean and the many flavors of the Middle East.

From Niche to Mainstream

Nowadays, places offering beef, chicken and lamb kebabs are a dime a dozen, but only a few can hold a candle to the restaurateur who created his own kebab empire from scratch 25 years ago.

When Hossein Sohrabi opened his first kebab stand in Makati, he had built himself a niche. It was the advent of the Iranian revolution and this had left the young Sohrabi stranded in the Philippines, unable to receive financial support from his family in Iran. This led Sohrabi to open what would be the first of many Hossein’s branches in the city. “My first restaurant in Jupiter Street (Makati) only had three tables,” shares Sohrabi. “I was only a student and I was the one doing all the cooking. There weren’t a lot of restaurants selling Persian cuisine then, so I was offering something new and authentic, something different.”

Today, places offering Middle Eastern food have turned out en masse. What was once a cuisine targeting a niche group of diners has grown to cater to the mainstream market. Still, Hossein’s manages to stand out because of three things: first, while other restaurants offer only a page-full of choices, Sohrabi overwhelms with his over 480 dishes worth of Halal-ready Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Indo-Pakistan cuisine; second, he narrowed his target market to class AB diners, as well as expatriates and consulates of different embassies; and lastly, he remains pretty hands-on when it comes to maintaining the quality of the food, particularly the sauces. “I mix all the ingredients in my house twice a week and give it to the cooks mixed already,” says Hossein. “I do this because too many people have come to pirate my people in the past.”

While some may find the food in Hossein’s exorbitantly priced, this is because the finest ingredients are used—the gravy, in particular, is made of ground cashew. “The people who eat here know their food and they pay for that,” says Sohrabi. “I’m not selling sh*t food, I am selling real quality. All our ingredients are imported and quite expensive because we want to preserve the authenticity of the cuisine.”

Going Authentic, Familiar

It has been a trend in most restaurants offering foreign cuisines to give their food a twist to make it more acceptable to the Filipino palate. However, this takes away the integrity of being authentic—at least where Phillip Mazloum is concerned.

Mazloum recently opened a casual-dining restaurant along Jupiter Street, Makati called “Mana-ish”, whose main selling proposition is its thin-crust namesake—the mana-ish, a popular local delicacy in the Middle East. Like Sohrabi, Mazloum imports most of his ingredients and kitchen equipment from his home country, Syria. “As much as possible, we try not to change the authentic flavors that we have,” Mazloum says. “Some people would tell us ‘Why don’t you do Arabic food with Filipino taste?,’ but that’s not really Arabic and I don’t want to give people a different idea about the cuisine.”

When Mazloum started Mana-ish last year, one of the challenges was in presenting Syrian cuisine to local customers. “There’s a misconception that Syrian food is spicy but our food is really mild. We have aromatic dishes,” says Mazloum. “We’re still testing the waters. Arabic cuisine is so vast that there’s so many to take into. So what we’re doing for the first 11 months is to present dishes that are familiar like the kebab and the usual Arabic appetizers, as well as including food that are more ‘adventurous’ like the Fatteh, which I don’t see served in other restaurants. Then we’ll see from there.”

As soon as he ensures Mana-ish is running smoothly, Mazloum intends to pursue the plans he made with his original partner who passed away recently. “As soon as Mana-ish was set up, I was supposed to open another restaurant and he would run this. But I had to adjust to the situation,” says Mazloum. “But I’m hopeful. I’m a man of vision and I’ve always seen I had a full place. I believe this concept is unique and that it will really grow. It hasn’t happened 100 percent yet, but people traffic is picking up.”

Hossein’s is open from 11 a.m. to 12 midnight daily in any of its four branches: 2/F LKV Building, Makati Avenue, Makati City, tel. no. (2) 890-6137; 2/F Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati City, tel. no. (2) 729-0266; 2/F Serendra, Bonifacio High Street, Taguig, tel. no. (2) 856-0632; and 4/F TriNoma Mall, Quezon City, cell. no. (917) 882-2056. Mana-ish is located at G/F Valdelcon Building, Antares cor. Jupiter Sts., Barangay Bel-Air, Makati City, tel. no. (2) 896-6262.

Published in the Business Agenda Section of Manila Bulletin, 31 May 2010.