If you like healthy, fresh food, a warm and friendly environment to dine at or to order out, then the newly opened Amal’s Authentic Middle Eastern Cuisine restaurant, located at 25 North Chestnut Street in downtown New Paltz, is the place to patronize!
Amal Maseer, a teacher, artist, chef and an Iraq War refugee, has teamed up with Nahida Hamadan, an Iraqi chef who worked for eight years in a four-star Dubai hotel and then in an über-popular restaurant in the Middle Eastern sections of Patterson, NJ, to create reasonably priced, nutritious and delicious food at their restaurant — as well as a catering business for those looking for a true, ethnic and unique extravaganza of the palate.
The New Paltz Times’s reporter and photographer had the great opportunity to taste some of the humble-yet-extraordinary dishes that Hamadan created. There were grape leaves, tahini, beef and lamb kebabs, basmati rice with dill and other spices that melted together. They offer a traditional dish, labneh, that has yogurt thickened through natural cloth with pita bread that one could eat for days — not to mention their desserts. If you want sweet and scrumptious without a thousand calories, try Amal’s desserts, which blend various sweetened cream, nuts, coconut and slivers of rare, thin pasta from the Middle East that melt in the mouth.
Their presentation is gorgeous yet simple and the food unparalleled, as all of their ingredients and seasonings are imported and their meat from Middle Eastern farms in New Jersey. In keeping with Middle Eastern tradition and American desires, they offer every variety of gyros, falafel and kebabs, as well as lesser-known-yet-appealing, dishes from their homeland.
The restaurant is decorated with Maseer’s moving oil-on-canvas painting of various Impressionist scenes of her homeland, from laborers in the streets of the city to the old apartments and homes of Baghdad that have since been destroyed to mystical images of Bedouins in the desert, with their camels or horses and a full moon escorting their journey. Maseer’s paintings, along with fresh flowers, tasteful lighting and seating, bring a beautiful blend of the old, the new, the Far East and the West together in a seamless fashion.
Five years ago, Maseer came to New Paltz from war-torn Baghdad with her three children after being targeted by Al Qaeda. She was given support by many US friends — most importantly, then-congressman Maurice Hinchey — to bring her family to safety in America. New Paltz and the surrounding area embraced her and helped the college-level teacher/artist to find a job, showcase her artwork, make a living for her family and find a sense of place and peace after the devastation that she experienced and witnessed in the land of her birth.
Maseer had a great life in Baghdad before the strike in 1993 and the war against Iraq in 2001. She was a college teacher in mathematics, physics and marketing. As a wife and a mother of three young children, she carried on after her house was bombed and destroyed during the US strike in Baghdad in 1993. The family relocated, rebuilt and then found themselves in the Green Zone: the area between Saddam Hussein’s mansion and the US military’s occupied territory. “Whenever there was crossfire between the US and Al Qaeda, we were in the middle. That year I lost my second house to a bombing, five neighbors, including two 18-month-old twins. It was too much. Just too much.”
That said, Maseer, a woman of great resources and perseverance, continued to survive, running an Internet café and writing for a progressive Iraqi magazine, Lenabdae, which translates as “Let’s Start.” She assisted five women who were sentenced to death by Al Qaeda, most of whom were giving birth in prison, to have them be released or their sentences reduced.
This only begins to tell the tale of an extraordinary woman, who gives whatever small profits she makes towards humanitarian causes, while teaching traditional belly dancing, cooking, catering and caring for her younger son — who like many Iraqis and American soldiers, has suffered from the chemicals released by the bombs. Yet despite what she has experienced and suffered, Maseer is one of the most beautiful people and hostesses one could ever meet.
“I love being here in New York. I love my family and friends here, and I feel so supported. We opened yesterday, and the response was incredible! People are so excited to have authentic, healthy dishes at a reasonable price. I’ve done several catering jobs, and one bride told me that they talked more about my catering than they did about her dress!” she said with a laugh. Having had the opportunity to sample so much of what Amal’s Authentic Middle Eastern Cuisine has to offer, I can understand the sentiments of the bride.
The restaurant’s hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on the weekends. For reservations, catering or takeout, call (845) 255-3793.