If not for his talents for forgery and for culinary invention, Salam Al-Rawi probably wouldn’t have been on Whalley Avenue this week preparing to open Westville Village’s newest restaurant.
He might well have ended up in prison if he hadn’t been able to forge a convincing stamp on the passport he used to flee his native Iraq in 1978. He could have ended up dead.
Years later his flair for improvising on Mediterranean recipes enabled him to open a string of successful New York restaurants.
He plans to bring that flair — and to continue improvising — at Rawa, the eatery and take-out spot he hopes to open in late September at Whalley and West Rock avenues in the space last occupied by Stone Hearth, which closed last November.
Al-Rawi was busy with a crew reconfiguring the space this week to a more open, communal design where diners will sit at 14-foot communal tables to sample and perhaps share pizzas topped with roasted eggplant and diced lamb or scallops, falafel, lentil soup, and unpredictable riffs on a wide range of traditions.
“A reflection of my lifetime acquisition of culinary magic,” Al-Rawi responded when, during an interview break, he was asked to put a name on the concept.
The imminent opening will be the first of a series of new restaurants planned for vacant spots in Westville Village. A developer named Lior Israel is still working on a plan to bring several eateries plus apartments to the old Delaney’s spot at Whalley and Central, while the team behind New Haven’s Geronimo and Shell & Bones is at work converting the old New Haven Savings/First Niagara bank branch at Fountain and Whalley into an as-yet-undisclosed restaurant.
“It’s all good news. It’s not super-fast news,” said Westville Village Renaissance Executive Director Lizzy Donius. “Salam is a really experienced restaurateur. He’s a neat guy. And he’s an excellent chef.”
Al-Rawi’s secret sauce is as much about his life journey as it is about the ingredients. You might say the new restaurant is an homage to the northern Iraqi village where both the business and the restaurateur derive their name.
Many people who hail from Rawa along the Euphrates River 50 miles from the Syrian border bear the name Al-Rawi. And they’ve lived there a long time.
Salam Al-Rawi didn’t grow up there. He grew up in Baghdad. His parents grew up in Rawa. So did their parents, their grandparents ... their ancestors all the way back to the 8th century AD.
Salam Al-Rawi did spend lots of time there visiting as a child. He remembers lush orchards, water wheels irrigating the land, clay purifiers for drinking water. He remembers climbing trees to pick and eat figs and pomegranates. He remembers people stopping him on the street and, just by his looks, accurately reciting the names of his relatives and ancestors.
“Let me tell you about Rawa. If you’re in Rawa, you ask for a hotel or a restaurant, and they smile. Because every single house is open to guests to eat and sleep. Rawis refuse to this day to allow any restaurants or hotels,” but rather insist on lodging and feeding visitors themselves.
Life in Baghdad, on the other hand, was repressive under Saddam Hussein. Al-Rawi and a brother and sister were involved in opposition politics. The regime was cracking down in the late 1970s; other dissidents were being arrested, tortured in jail, executed. The siblings decided they needed to flee the country.
Al-Rawi, then 21, had an expired passport. That’s when he forged the stamp for his passport.
He showed up at the airport and made it onto the plane. It must have been a terrifying moment then. But four decades later, at the age of 61, Al-Rawi, who seems to have a perpetual twinkle in his eye, laughs about it. “It’s comic now,” he insisted. “When you are able to fool the butchers, then you’re OK as a lamb. You don’t need to fight the butcher; [you can] fool him.”
He studied literature in Tours, France, while working as an “extra” at pizzerias and visiting chateaus on a bicycle. After graduation, he moved to New York (“to improve my English”). He married, started a family.
In 1989 he started a restaurant in an $800 a month space on pre-gentrification Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
“I had this idea. I wanted to copy something from Lebanon. Every neighborhood there has a furn, or a baker that only makes dough. People in the neighborhood bring topping, and he rolls the dough and put the topping on, and gives it to them for a fee.”
He called the restaurant Moustache. Why? “It is a prominent feature in the Middle East. Everyone has a mustache.” Al-Rawi, who indeed sports a mustache, baked and sold a “pitza” (combination pizza/pita) topped with zatter, a mix of sesame seeds, salt, and sumac with olive oil. “I refused to cook” other dishes, he said. “I wanted to concentrate on the reenactment of the oven, the furno.”
Business was slow at first. Al-Rawi enjoyed the relaxed pace.
Then, on the same Sunday, both The New York Times and Daily News published rave reviews. Al-Rawi showed up at the restaurant to find lines around the block. “We didn’t make enough food” that day, he said. The next day he did.
The lines remained around the block for six months. “It became a business to me in one day. It turned from an adventure to a business.”
He succeeded at that business. Eventually, he had three Mustaches in New York. He tested a different concept for an East Harlem restaurant called Malouk: He’d decide each day what dishes he felt like cooking. He’d have “copper pots simmering” by the time diners arrived. The diners wouldn’t order. They would tell the staff what foods they can and can’t eat — “and we throw plates at you” for a multi-course meal. He ran that restaurant for nine years.
In 2013, before Rawi became too dangerous to visit amid Iraq’s ongoing violence, Al-Rawi took his son back to Rawa for a visit, to show him his roots.
Three men approached them as soon as they arrived and got out of a car.
“Who are you? What’s your business?” they asked.
“I just pronounced my name. They said, ‘OK. You’ve arrived,’” Al-Rawi recalled. The men immediately shepherded him and his son to a home for a meal. They had lunch and dinner and breakfast at a different home the rest of their trip.
Whalley On The Mediterranean
Al-Rawi aims to transport that spirit, rather than specific dishes, to his new Westville restaurant. He renovated the bar and removed an extension to open up the dining room. He plans to install the two 14-foot communal tables as the centerpiece, right by the now-open oven area. The goal is to have diners sit not just with their friends and family, but with people they might not know.
“In Australia, most of the restaurants have communal tables,” he said. “It brings people closer to together. You cannot help but start a conversation with people next to you. And sometimes there’s plate sharing. We encourage people to share what they’ve discovered in food.”
Al-Rawi originally planned to open the restaurant in the Westville space eight years ago. A friend, Thea Buxbaum, an architect of Westville’s revival, had lured him to the space being built at the corner of Whalley and West Rock as part of a larger artist-housing and retail complex. (Al-Rawi met Buxbaum when he catered her wedding.) But construction delays lasted years, and Al-Rawi could wait no longer.
Then, this summer, he came to Westville to cater a 50th birthday party for Buxbaum with 200 guests in her backyard. “He asked me not to request a menu. I said, ‘Do what you want.’ The food was unbelievable,” Buxbaum recalled. She remained convinced that his “unbelievable cooking” belonged in Westville.
In fact, Al-Rawi asked her to tell him when space might open up. So Buxbaum told him: One has opened up, at Whalley and West Rock.
So, on the second invitation, he took the space and began renovating.
He’s still working on the menu. Pizza will be a staple of it, he said. Don’t expect New Haven pizza. He promised a different crust, with “Brooklyn fresh mozzarella,” the “best Italian flour, “good hearty tomato sauce”— and, when it comes to toppings, a “twist” for which he asks customers to keep “an open mind.” One day’s toppings might include roasted fennel and artichokes and eggplant. The menu, in general, will have plenty of vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free, tomato-free options, along with seafood and meat.
A sample takeout menu included lentil soup for $7, garden salad with grilled chicken ($16), an avocado-scallions-cilantro-jalapeno-tomato-lime juice dip ($8), falafel entree ($12), shrimp biryani with sauteed vegetables and basmati rice and yogurt sauce ($20), and a variety of 12-inch pizzas ($15-$19). The “pollo” has roast chicken, onion, sumac, and pine nuts on top the “momyaldi,” eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and diced lamb. There’s a seafood option, a simple “margharita” with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil, and, of course, the “Rawa,” featuring roasted vegetables.
The common thread, he said, will be “simplicity.”
Al-Rawi is leaving in the booths that line the Whalley-side wall as a concession, though his heart’s in the communal space. The big tables. And the spirit of a village that will live not only in memory but in a next-generation gathering spot in New Haven.