The Restauranteur Sheikh

A dish of summac chicken prepared by Damask Cafe, seen April 28, 2015.

MUNCIE, Ind. — Damask Café has already closed, but its owner has found a way to keep its food in Muncie, even after the restaurant has left.

Owner Bassam Helwani said recipes from his former restaurant on Bethel Avenue will be available for avid customers in a cookbook, which will include vegan and gluten-free recipes, too. Purchase of the cookbook will also include a gift basket of six spices and dressings: sumac, turmeric, curry, za’atar, allspice and the restaurant’s salad dressing mix.

“You asked for it, and we listened! … All your favorite recipes and spices can be yours to keep and cook forever!” a Facebook post reads.

Helwani, whose background is in computing technology and software, told the Star Press this month he would be leaving for California to work with the mobile application, Pocket Points. That meant closing his two Muncie restaurants, Damask Café and Two Cats Café. The restaurants’ final days of operation were Dec. 14 and Dec. 13, respectively, though Helwani told the Star Press he is willing to sell the name and assets.

Damask Café served Mediterranean cuisine including wraps, gyros, kabobs and more for nearly six years in Muncie.

The cookbook and gift basket are available in limited quantities for $49.95. Those interested can email or direct message the restaurant on Facebook. A link will be sent for purchasing the items and arranging for pick-up or shipping, according to the Facebook post.


Damask Cafe owner Bassam Helwani poses for Dine & Dish, May 4, 2015.

MUNCIE – For the past couple of years, Damask Café owner Bassam Helwani has been working to create a perfect blend of classic Mediterranean food and his own culinary creations.

In the nearly three years since taking over the once-empty building at 3201 W. Bethel Ave., his hard work has seemingly paid off. His café has won the Taste of Muncie event’s best entrée category two times in three years.

“We are really proud of what we do here,” Helwani said. “We take pride in the fact our food is so embraced by this area. We like to think we have a unique selection and we strive to give people food that will light up their taste buds.”

Hookahs and heat waves

Damask, 3201 W. Bethel Ave., has seen success with lighting up more than just people’s taste buds, though. The restaurant is the only eatery in Muncie with an outside area for people to experiment with hookahs – water pipes used to smoke tobacco.

And while a large number of those who use hookah are college-age, Helwani said he’s seen people much older than that smoke it too.

“It doesn’t really have any age limits – as long as you’re 18 or older. Other than that, I don’t feel like there’s any age limit on the other end of the spectrum,” he said.

The tented patio area is more than just a gathering place for smokers. The fabric tent, which Helwani said came from a maker in Florida, is a perfect spot for customers who want to experience the summer heat and views without breaking a sweat.

“I love spending time out here,” he said. “We can’t keep this tent up during the winter months because of the snow, and since nobody would want to sit out here anyway, because of the cold, but it’s a wonderful thing to have when it’s warm outside.”

The tent, which is able to take just about any geometric shape, has stakes holding it down on the westward face, he said. This allows people to remain outdoors even when the rain comes in, compared to large umbrellas that would still allow customers to get rained on, explained Helwani.

Regardless of the temperature and the weather, he said he feels lucky to have the opportunity to bring his food and his culture to the area.

“I came here from Kansas,” he said. “I like the fact I am able to share this kind of food with places that otherwise might not ever get to experience it.”

Becoming better

According to Helwani, who said he owns a similar venture in Kansas City, his Muncie cafe is filling a niche that most around town didn’t even realize existed.

“This food is really getting popular worldwide,” he said. “It’s healthy, simple and flavorful. We have a very (representative) menu.”

Prior to becoming Damask Café, the building housed another restaurant, albeit one which was cited on multiple occasions for violating health codes. When he first leased the building from the previous owners, he did so after it had been absent of a restaurant for nearly a year.

His first task was making sure he took care of the structure and health issues

“We were closed for a good three or four months after we moved in here,” he said. “We wanted to make sure when we opened up, we would stay open without any issues.”

Since opening, Helwani said his restaurant’s health department inspections have been stellar.

“We are doing everything we can to keep this place in perfect order,” he said. “We wanted to make this place our own, and we really have.”

He employs several Ball State University students, and he wants them to use what they learn at his restaurant as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

“If someone comes to me and tells me they want to work here for the rest of their life, I will tell them they are crazy,” Helwani said. “I don’t want this to be the (end) of their path; I want it to be the start of their life-long journey. I want them to pass on what they learn and use it to their advantage.”

Community ties

Last year, Helwani and a few Ball State graduate students took on a new, much different task; they started a community garden.

“I really want people who need or want to be able to get fresh, garden-type foods to be able to come and do so,” he said. “This is a garden not for us, but for the people of Muncie.”

The garden, which is composed of multiple soil beds scattered throughout the property, provides herbs, in addition to some fruits and vegetables.

Damask is also open to school groups who want to visit the restaurant, Helwani said. The eatery has three or four groups visit each year, and many of them are there to learn about not just the food, but the culture of Syria and the Mediterranean area.

“I think it’s important for people to know more about where this food comes from,” he said. “There are a lot of great things countries have to offer. There’s a lot to learn that (is positive).”