From the age of 4, Jay Salkini would follow his father to the largest orchards in Syria and watch as he haggled over olives and cheese.
The bidding would begin at $100, to which the elder Salkini would scoff, propose $70 and wait for the vendor to meet him halfway. The dance went on until the father and son slinked off with bundles of produce and a standing invitation to dinner.
“He knew how to make every vendor treat him as part of the family,” Jay Salkini said of his father, who ran a company producing Syrian goods.
Now, at age 60, Jay Salkini is the founder of a multimillion-dollar telecommunications company, and for his latest venture, he has opened one of the highest-ranking new restaurants in the United States, according to a 2023 list by Yelp. Ammoora, the fine-dining Syrian restaurant, sits within the Ritz-Carlton Residences of Baltimore off Key Highway. The spot ranked as No. 16 of 25, beating out a James Beard-nominated chef’s latest venture in San Diego, California, and Martha Stewart’s newest creation inside the Paris casino in Las Vegas.
No other Baltimore or Syrian eatery made the list.
The restaurant, whose Arabic name translates to “beautiful,” “captivating” or “loving,” is a world built off the lessons in hospitality and lust for finer things instilled by Salkini’s father. Customers are invited to be a part of the family in a dinner where dishes are pulled from old Salkini cookbooks. Except at Ammoora, Syrian is synonymous with opulence.
Brass arches line the entryway to a dining room with stained glass windows and a stone fountain — each with Syrian designs. Plush couches on mosaic tiles sit behind champagne colored velvet drapes to create a private dining experience in what’s called a liwan, or a traditional nook for feasting.
Artfully decorated spreads of beet mutabal, with roasted beets and labneh, or strained yogurt, and muhammara, a dip of walnuts, bell peppers and pomegranate molasses, are made with certain ingredients only grown in the Levant region, which includes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Cyprus.
The attention to detail comes in part out of Salkini’s frustration with a lack of authentic Syrian food in Baltimore. The Syrian community around Maryland has grown since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011, according to Salkini. Yet, he has not been able to find traditional Syrian foods, such as the country’s pita bread. Unlike others, the bread rises to the point of capturing pockets of air or “poofs.”
Baltimore also has a limited luxury dining scene — a void Salkini believed Ammoora could fill. While he has traveled to Los Angeles and Miami for elevated dining experiences, he did not know of anyone going out of their way to eat in Baltimore.
He aspired to change that in 2015, when Salkini first eyed the space at 751 Key Highway for Ammoora. The spot was close enough to promised new developments in South Baltimore’s peninsula, making it an up-and-coming area. Being attached to the Ritz also meant getting a credible “five-star look” that Salkini could use to silence any critics skeptical of a fine dining Syrian establishment.
By the time Salkini purchased the venue in 2021, Syria had been making headlines. A 2020 cease-fire put a momentary pause to a violent civil war, which had left millions displaced over the years, creating an international refugee crisis.
“Everybody knows what’s going on in the Middle East and how people look at certain communities,” he said.
To him, Ammoora was an opportunity. The restaurant was created to show Americans the Syria that Salkini had known — a home he had lived in until 1981, when he left the country at age 17.
“Just because it’s going through an off time right now, that does not mean Syria is not rich with its culture, history and cuisine,” he said.
Many customers have shared that sentiment since Ammoora’s opening in January 2023, according to Salkini. Federal contractors, including former Army, Navy and Marine personnel, have made up a large part of Ammoora’s patrons. They are familiar with some of the cuisine from their time serving and eager to share it with their children.
For Baltimore’s community of Syrian Jews, who fled the country by the thousands during the ‘90s, Ammoora has been a long-awaited taste of home. Salkini said multiple patrons had approached him, claiming the meal brought back memories of their lives in the city of Aleppo.
“The end goal was to build this elegant reflection of a destination that some may never make it to,” said Markie Britton, a co-founder and manager of Ammoora.
This proved to be a challenge for Britton’s team as the restaurant geared up to open during the pandemic. Supply chain issues, the extensive costs and paperwork required to ship items from Syria, each forced Ammoora’s staff to improvise.
When they could not access cherries grown in Aleppo, staff sourced the fruits from California, New York and New Jersey, mixing the suppliers’ produce to find an authentic-tasting sour flavor. They used the reduction over balls of minced beef in a dish known as kebbet karaz, otherwise known as meatballs with cherry sauce. The plate comes with burghul wheat, mint, cinnamon, toasted pine nuts and a sauce of parsley, garlic and lemon zest.
Ammoora’s tabbouleh is also made to be singularly Syrian, ditching the reliance on onion and cracked wheat that’s become customary of other Levantine cultures like Israel and Palestine, in favor of a lemon base with heaps of mint, parsley and tomato.
Then there’s Salkini’s favorite: the short rib freekeh. The dish leans on a traditional Syrian grain, freekeh, which has been harvested before it ripens to retain moisture from the Levantine climate. Britton explains the grain to new customers as “al dente” for its tougher texture, which is used in a risotto, paired with swiss chard, pine nuts, pomegranates and short rib beef instead of the usual chicken for a modern twist.
The meal was one Salkini grew up eating at his mother’s dinner table. Now too frail to make the trip to Baltimore from Istanbul, Turkey, she has given her approval to the restaurant’s take on baklawa. The dessert is flavored with cardamom and rose water as opposed to baklava’s cinnamon and cloves.
Salkini’s three daughters are also fans.
“I told them if I build it, will you come and help?” he said, and since then his oldest has taken on the retail end of the operation, selling Ammoora’s baklawa online.
To them, Ammoora has been a venue to explore what it means to be Syrian. They invite friends and colleagues out of a pride in their culture and an appreciation for its beauty.
“I never thought I’d have all these Americans and servers in Baltimore speaking the Arabic language,” Salkini said.