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Friday, January 27, 2023

Ammoora brings Levantine fare to Baltimore, Mova Nature juices Hampden and Tre Fratelli opens in Federal Hill – Baltimore Sun

My favorite restaurant stories are the ones that have a powerful human angle in addition to the culinary one.

It’s easy to get caught up in the flavor and presentation of the food on the table in front of us — and those elements are essential to a good meal. But it’s also important not to lose sight of the stories that make up the foundation for our favorite dishes and restaurants.

This week, I sat down with Dima Al-Chaar, the head chef at Ammoora, the city’s newest fine dining spot, to hear about the inspiration for the Levantine menu she’s crafted there. I also talked with Kelli Redmond-Bagby, who told me about the deeply personal reason she started Mova Nature, a juice bar that just opened in Hampden. And I caught up with the team behind Tre Fratelli, a new Italian restaurant in Federal Hill that’s also a family affair.

Plus, Rosina Gourmet founder Jim Lancaster shares an update on the Baltimore-based lunch spot’s plans to open a new location in the county.

Chef Dima Al-Chaar has vivid memories of sneaking out of class as a teenager to smoke shisha and eat laymouniyé on the streets of Damascus. The street snack, sold in the alleys of the ancient Syrian city, is a refreshing lemon slush with orange blossom and zest that makes the citrus flavors pop.

Al-Chaar, now the executive chef at Ammoora, a new restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Residences, brings back those days with a fresh version of the beloved dessert on her menu there. Al-Chaar’s take isn’t frozen — instead, it’s a tart lemon curd infused with orange blossom and topped with almond crumble and marinated fruit.

“This triggered the memories,” she says.

There’s much about the menu at Ammoora that’s personal for Al-Chaar, a former Top Chef Middle East contestant who has made sharing the food and culture of the Levant into a career mission.

For the past decade — since the start of the Syrian Civil War — the Damascus native has traveled the world putting on pop-ups through the Silk Road Journey, a traveling supper club that educates diners about Syrian food. At Ammoora, she shares regional dishes that might not even be familiar to all Syrians, like Mselwa’at, a vegetarian kebbeh stuffed with Swiss chard, walnut, red chili paste and olive oil that’s native to the northern part of the country.

Yalangi, a cold dish of rolled vine leaves, rice, vegetables and pomegranate, is made using her mother’s recipe.

“I have to have it on every single menu so she’s proud,” Al-Chaar says.

At Ammoora, the surroundings are as authentic as the food. The main dining room is styled after a traditional Levantine courtyard, with an indoor fountain and curtained-off nooks called liwans, which can be reserved for private parties.

But Ammoora isn’t just focused on Syrian cuisine. Al-Chaar also serves other foods from the Levant, an historical geographic area that includes Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Diners can tuck into Mousakhan chicken rolls with sumac-braised meat, caramelized onions and a labneh dip from Palestine and sip Turkish coffee served from ornate rolling carts.

People “think [Levantine] cuisine is all about hummus, tabbouleh and chickpeas,” Al-Chaar says. “There’s a lot more to it.”

At Ammoora, the surroundings are as authentic as the food, with furniture from Syria, designs like mosaic pearl tiles and hand-carved doors, and a dining room styled after a traditional Levantine courtyard, with an indoor fountain and curtained-off nooks called liwans, which can be reserved for private parties. The 200-seat restaurant is the culmination of much planning and more than $1.8 million in investment from Jay Salkini, Ammoora’s owner.

Like the memories sparked by cool laymouniyé, “these details add warmth,” says Al-Chaar, who is eager to share the experience with Baltimore diners.

“Working on Ammoora, for me, is like going on stage and performing in front of people.”

The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was a time of heightened health awareness for many of us, but Kelli Redmond-Bagby had even more reason to focus on wellness.

Redmond-Bagby’s older sister, Danielle, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 2019, and as the pandemic began she dove into research about herbs and fresh juices that could help support her sister’s health. Shortly after Danielle’s diagnosis, Redmond-Bagby’s father passed away from kidney disease. Then she lost both of her jobs, one at a juice bar and another at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“It kind of put me down a rabbit hole of health and wellness,” she says.

Inspired by her research, Redmond-Bagby started a juice company, Mova Nature, in East Baltimore in 2020. Word of her business spread through social media and she found herself delivering products out of state, to customers as far as California and Arizona.

Juice bar MOVA NATURE opened in Hampden in December.

In December, she opened her first brick-and-mortar store at 813 W. 36th St., on the Avenue in Hampden. Customers can buy bottled Mova Nature juices to go or order from a fresh juice bar, which serves healthy blends like pineapple, ginger and turmeric or honeydew melon, cucumber, spinach and apple.

The shop also sells açai bowls and drinks with sea moss, a kind of red algae that is said to be a superfood. Redmond-Bagby plans to gradually add more health and wellness products to her inventory, as well as a wall of herb blends.

Tre Fratelli means “three brothers” in Italian, and there are indeed three brothers behind the new restaurant in Federal Hill.

The eatery, which opened Jan. 23 at 1121 Light St., is a collaboration between brothers Pedro, Elmer and Julio Lovo, who last worked together at Brendali Italian Ristorante two blocks away.

Brendali has since been sold to a cousin, says Elmer’s wife, Brenda Lovo, and the brothers were eager to find another opportunity in the neighborhood. At Tre Fratelli, they serve Italian classics like meatball subs, chicken Marsala and shrimp scampi for lunch and dinner.

Brenda Lovo recommends the Rigatoni Black and Blue, a plate of pasta tossed in vodka sauce with blackened chicken and blue cheese crumbles. Diners can eat their food in the restaurant’s 25-seat dining room or order it to go.

“It’s something that we’ve been waiting for, coming back to Federal Hill,” she says. “We’ve been missing our very lovely customers and very nice friends here.”

Rosina Gourmet's new store will serve breakfast and lunch items like soup and sandwiches. Takeout and delivery will also be available.

Rosina Gourmet is the latest city food enterprise to announce it will be dipping a toe in the Baltimore County dining pool.

The gourmet lunch and catering operation, founded 23 years ago in Baltimore, will open its first Baltimore County store in the coming weeks, says owner Jim Lancaster. The outpost will be at the corner of Deereco and Padonia roads.

Lancaster says Rosina Gourmet is looking to reach new customers after decades of focusing on the city.

“We’ve always done a little work in the county but we never concentrated on it,” he says. “We keep ourselves so busy in the city that we never needed to until COVID. Now that things are getting back to normal, it’s time to expand our geographical footprint.”

The new store will serve breakfast and lunch items like soup, sandwiches and coffee on-site, and will also offer takeout and delivery.

“It’s going to open a whole new market for us,” Lancaster says. Rosina Gourmet’s other locations are a full-service spot in downtown Baltimore and a headquarters in Canton, which is currently being used as a ghost kitchen and office space. A Rosina “Fresh Express” offers a miniature version of the gourmet eatery at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

As he looks to the future, Lancaster says he hopes to find a younger partner who is interested in licensing the brand.

“When I started this business, I could work 80 hours a week; I had monumental, unprecedented energy,” he says. “I need somebody with that energy.”

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