I DON'T DEMAND that restaurants have an aged family member sitting in the corner, benevolently observing all that is before them, but I have to admit it makes me feel a little more favorable toward a place. All the better if I see him tinkering with some piece of garden gate or greeting regulars, before he sits down and polishes off an oversized plate of his family's food. Though diners look for an escape from the kitchen, the house, and the work of cooking, we want to feel at home. If not our own, then the home of another, its family filling in for ours. Dar Salam, both in its Iraqi dishes and its gracious hospitality, is just such a haven, and it has just such an old man.
The nostalgic bric-a-brac trend in restaurant décor typically feels just as twee and artificial as it is, but not here. The 100-year-old carriage house unfurls like a deep and intimate parlor, its walls scarcely visible behind the hundreds of framed pictures of homeland and relatives. The handmade marquee from the family's cart—Aladdin's Castle Café—is no found object, but an inspiring chapter of their story. It's a remarkably comfortable, anti-corporate atmosphere that underscores a consistent realization: This experience is genuine.
The menu is largely Middle Eastern, with a handful of family dishes that stake out Iraqi territory. After the complimentary warm flatbread and excellent za'atar, the familiar mezza platter ($9.50) showcases Dar Salam's takes on the fundamentals: tahziki, hummus, baba ghanoush, and falafel. The lemon and yogurt in the tahziki is well balanced, and it's noteworthy for its silken mouthfeel. Smooth baba ghanoush is respectably smoky, but not overly so. The hummus, sadly, falls short in flavor and has a slightly watery body. Happily, their falafel are novel and delicious: Doughnut-shaped was a new one on me, but figuring "more is better" where fried surface area is concerned, I'm a fan.
Must-try starters ($5.50) are the beet salad—earthy, roasted beets that have cooled in a dressing of yogurt, garlic, and lemon—and the ful mudamas. The warm, creamy dish (chickpeas, olive oil, garlic) is addictive, its chopped garlic captured just after its transition from sharp and pungent into grassy and mellow.
The compulsory Middle Eastern green salad served with the mains—so often a joyless still life of cold water in vegetable form—stood out on the first visit. It might be the only "included" salad I'd ever order on its own ($3.50 by itself, $4.50 with feta). It's little more than crisp romaine, tomatoes, white onion, green olive, and dry, salty cheese, but a perfectly balanced lemon vinaigrette with just enough body to dress the leaves completely, along with a dusting of dried spices, makes it invigorating.
Vegetarians can eat well here. Two Iraqi margas, or stews ($9), are delicious and finely tuned. A tomato-based chickpea version with subtle cardamom is respectable, but the eggplant version, with tomato and garlic, is deep and rewarding, with the striking acidic highs and meat-like savor of a lovingly simmered ratatouille. Together with their moist, flavorful basmati rice and tahziki, it's a plate of food that combines richly and beautifully. A generously sized Iraqi version of the dolma called mahshi ($8.50) is also a meat-free standout: What at first looks like nothing more than rice pilaf stuffed inside braised onions remains interesting as the bright and satisfying flavors of sun-dried tomato and pomegranate emerge.
Meat shawarma dishes, served as either rice plates (starting at $13), salads ($10), or flatbread sandwiches ($8.25), are generous as well, though I find the fine shred in which most of the meats are presented to be a monotonous texture after a while, and I would have welcomed more seasoning. Their tender chicken is subtly spiced with cardamom, and their braised beef is light-bodied but deeply beefy. They eat best as rice plates, when the accompanying marga, tahziki, and rice come together, whether on fork or hot flatbread (which is store-bought, but of high quality and nicely griddled). The only letdown on three visits was the lamb kabob plate ($18)—where my investment netted me a decidedly petite portion of well-done lamb.
Of the house-made desserts, the flaky, golden, and honey-rich baklava ($4) is best—the buttery flavor of freshly ground pistachios stands out clearly. The clever Dark and Light ($4) grows on you: It's a Jackson Pollock-esque drizzled mosaic of dark, earthy dibbis date honey and a fairly fluid tahini, served as a dip with flatbread.
Service is warm and efficient, particularly if you get one of the chef/owners, though timing issues can have dessert showing up before appetizers. That would be bizarre anywhere else, but relaxed into a pillow-lined bench in the warm, amber glow of the charmingly cluttered room, I'm inclined to take it in stride.
Open: Monday-Friday 11 am-2:30 pm (lunch), 4:30-6 pm (happy hour), 6-10 pm (dinner); all day Saturday (no happy hour). Closed Sundays. Domestic and Lebanese beer and wine available. Fair warning: The restroom is a Honey Bucket.