THIS WEST BRIGHTON EATERY IS GIVING STATEN ISLAND AN AUTHENTIC TASTE OF MIDDLE EASTERN FLAVOR IN RUSTIC SETTINGS
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY CHRIS LOUPOS • Food photos by amanda domenech
For a borough teeming with culinary diversity, from Spanish bistros to Sri Lankan cafés, Staten Island has been surprisingly thin when it comes to authentic Middle Eastern fare especially if the desire is to have it served in elegant settings. Besides the occasional casual eatery, most diners needed to cross the Verrazzano to sit down for a traditional Syrian or Lebanese dish. But then, in 2017, a romantically lit bistro in West Brighton opened its doors, offering an authentic flavor profile of the Eastern Mediterranean.
“There were not too many places on the island where you could experience that,” explained Yulia Cilindrello, owner of MarMar Restaurant, which serves primarily Syrian and Lebanese cuisine.
A native of Russia, Cilindrello learned the art of Middle Eastern food preparation after she married her husband, Russel Romhen. His family is Syrian, and the new bride was taught how to prepare traditional dishes from his mother.
“When we decided to establish our family, I had to learn to cook the food the way his mother cooked it. Then one day, my husband came to me and told me had a surprise…that he’d opened a business for me! I asked, ‘What type?’ and he told me it was a restaurant. So I said, ‘OK, let’s do it!’”
The concept was to provide patrons a true cultural experience, in both flavor and ambiance. When the owners took over the venue, they let the natural surroundings of the space decide how they would decorate. A brick wall served as the focal point of the design; Cilindrello then utilized stone and other natural materials, topped by chandeliers, to create a classic Mediterranean atmosphere. On Saturday nights, the space comes to life with a traditional Middle Eastern belly dancer.
“She interacts with the people and makes them dance and laugh,” said Cilindrello. “Everyone loves it; she creates real positive energy.”
The menu is peppered with Romhen family recipe, passed down from generations. Classic cold appetizers include creamy Baba Ganough (a favorite of MarMar regulars); Lebneh, a yogurt spread made with mint and garlic; and Muhamara, a red pepper dip with crushed walnuts. For hot appetizers, patrons can choose from a selection that includes Makanik, a dish of ground meat and Syrian sausage sautéed with lemon juice; Foul, mixed fava beans with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil; and an assortment of grilled pitas stuffed with seasoned meats and cheeses.
A generous assortment of main dishes are also on tap, including a whole Branzino grilled with Syrian spices, and grilled lamb chops. The most popular menu item is a mix of three meats: filet mignon, chicken kabab, and kufta (seasoned beef). A slightly smaller dish and pleasant surprise is the MarMar Burger a lamb and beef patty on a pita, served with fries. There is also an assortment of sandwiches, along with a kids menu.
“All of our food is made with love. We make sure our ingredients are fresh and the meat is halal [an Arabic word meaning “lawful” or “permitted,” halal indicates food prepared in keeping with Muslim traditions of purity that date to the 7th century]. The food is only getting better and will continue to.”
The recipes might be traditional, but, as Cilindrello explained, the menu is not set in stone.
“I’m always cruising from table to table to see what customers like and to give them suggestions,” she said. “I’ll bring around samples to try. If someone is watching their diet, I’ll come up with an idea. If they don’t like food with a lot of spice, we’ll make it that way. I offer a personal touch for every diner.”
370 Forest Avenue / 718.556.2220