Location: 96 Rochester Road, Ross Township. 412-931-9005. www.tymaz.com
Hours: Tue.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. 4-9 p.m.; Sun. 4-8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $5; a la carte entrees $8-17; dinners $10-19
Atmosphere: Bright and casual
Growing up in distant climes, Jason heard stories from his mother about Pittsburgh's extensive Syrian population, a source of "Syrian bread" and other treats exotic to an American woman in the 1950s. But when Jason himself arrived on these three rivers' banks some 40 years later, he was taken aback to find that Syrian culture seemed to have vanished without a trace. The few Middle Eastern restaurants still here were generally run by more recent immigrants from other lands.
What happened to Pittsburgh's Syrians? We can't say. But when we heard rumors of a bona fide Syrian restaurant, Tyma'z, it was enough to lure us to the North Hills.
Tyma'z is run by a resident of Pittsburgh's East End, Radwa Ibrahim. In deference to presumed conservative suburban tastes, she originally devised a menu split between Italian and Middle Eastern offerings. (We don't say "Syrian," specifically, because the now-familiar options of hummus, baba ghanoush and gyro on pita -- turns out that's all Syrian bread was -- have taken on a sort of regional citizenship that makes them hard to pin down.) But by the time we sat down to dinner, "Italian" had been conspicuously crossed off of the Tyma'z menu, which now consisted almost entirely of specialties from farther east.
After settling in at a table in the broad front window of the restaurant's warmly lit dining room, we ordered a Mazza Platter to fortify us as we perused the rest of the menu. This appetizer assortment included smooth, almost pudding-like hummus; chunky baba ghanoush, its flavor balanced between smoky and bland without fully embracing either one; fresh, herbal tabbouli, with grains of bulghur; salty feta and olives; and a basket heaped with warm pita/Syrian bread.
Offered a choice of ordering her entree a la carte or as a dinner with rice and salad, Angelique chose the chicken shawarma dinner. In it, tender, moist chunks of chicken -- and plenty of them -- were marinated, grilled and served in a tahini-based gravy heavily seasoned with warm spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and cumin. This was accompanied by a standard-issue iceberg-lettuce salad and a heaping serving of buttery rice, whose plump grains were more tender than al dente. In fact, had we not known it was rice, we might have guessed it was orzo. Slivers of toasted almonds on top were a delightful surprise, lending the flavor a nutty note and the added texture of a subtle, slivery crunch. Though shawarma is traditionally served rolled in pita or other flatbread as a street food, we found this rice an excellent complement to it when served as a more formal meal on a plate.
If the shawarma was serviceable and the rice pilaf very good, then Jason's mixed grill was spectacular. The lamb was beautifully charred on the outside, medium-rare within, and juicy, exuding the rich flavor of lamb without a hint of gaminess. This was lamb that would be respectable in any dining room in the city. Kafta (ground beef "sausage" mixed with finely chopped parsley, onion and spices) had a slightly coarse texture, as if cut in the kitchen rather than ground in a factory. In it, meaty flavor, not seasonings, predominated, and it was surprisingly juicy.
Our daughter, whose childish palate remains a rebuke to her parents' highfalutin' tastes, gave us the opportunity to test Tyma'z's mettle with a fried-fish sandwich -- here given a Syrian accent with tahini dressing and a pita wrap. We found the lightly breaded tilapia a welcome relief from the usual slabs of battered cod, and the tahini's mellow flavor a good complement to the mild fish, though it would have benefited from some lemon high notes.
Tyma'z is a good Middle Eastern restaurant with a standout lamb kabob. We only wished for a few more distinctively Syrian preparations -- such as a pomegranate sauce for shawarma that we know only from reading about it -- to set it apart from other broadly Middle Eastern eateries.