I arrived on a summer-like day in early
May at opening time, 11 a.m., to eat the
famed kunafa at its freshest. Co-owner Talal
Nabulsi waved me out of the bakery.
“Can you wait 25 minutes?” he asked with
a smile, rushing back into the kitchen to
ascertain that nothing had burned. But
he didn’t leave me empty-handed while
I waited: he sent me out with a pistachio
baklava, a semolina cookie filled with
spiced dates, an apricot butter cookie
and what appears to be a small edible
bird’s nest of phyllo dough, a generous
layer of nuts glued to its top.
Al-Sham co-owners and brothers, Talal
and Sam Nabulsi, grew up in Jordan. They
hail from a family of chefs, having learned
the trade from their father, taught by his
own father. When I asked Talal Nabulsi
how he mastered baking such a wide array
of sweets, he shrugged.
“You know, when your father does
something, and it’s in your family, that’s
how you learn it,” he said. “You are born
into it. My father showed us everything.”
Their family’s first restaurant opened in
Jordan in 1935. The brothers opened Astoria’s
Al-Sham nine years ago, in 2009, in
this Middle Eastern neighborhood, with
32 JUNE 2 0 1 8
the aim of satisfying cravings from across
“Our sweets are Palestinian, Jordanian,
Saudi Arabian. Baklava, that is Turkish,”
Talal Nabulsi explained. Reflecting the diversity
of New York City and their own familial
crossings across borders are sweets
from around the world, not only kunafa
and kadayif, but also baklava and stuffed
jelly rolls fill their display.
They largely serve the local populace
in the neighborhood, devoted customers
who flock to the shop for freshly baked
sweets hailing from across the Middle East.
“Our customers come every day, because
they know we bake fresh stuff every
morning," said Talal Nabulsi with a smile
and an eye on the oven at all times.
Under the hot sun of this summer-like
day, I delved into the selection of cookies
that Nabulsi gave me while I waited, all as
a preamble to the main act: the kadayif.
First, I sampled a butter cookie, its center
filled with thick apricot preserves. Its
balance was remarkable: buttery richness
broken through by sweetness and a hint
of tart from the fruit.
Next, a semolina cookie (the dough
cooked without sugar) stuffed with aniseed
and cinnamon-spiced date preserves.
It was more aromatic than sweet.
I followed this by a small piece of baklava,
generously soaked in butter and
sugar syrup, plump with crushed pistachios.
This was, I realized, the first baklava
I have eaten in America that did not break
Finally, I bit into the phyllo dough bird’s
nest, nuts just caramelized, with a crunch.
The sweetness was again subtle, enough
to satisfy a child without overwhelming
When I returned after 25 minutes, large
silver trays of just-baked kunafa and kadayif
were resting on the counter.
I began with a square of the kadayif,
saving the best for last. Where there is
rosewater, it is softly aromatic, a light
complement rather than a floral distraction
to this nut-stuffed pastry.
Al-Sham Sweets & Pastries sits on Steinway Street in
Astoria, within a four-block stretch of Middle Eastern
restaurants, bakeries, groceries, jewelry sellers and allpurpose
shops. From the outside, Al-Sham appears
unremarkable, as one awning among many. But inside, the
scents of butter, baked nuts and rosewater sweeten the air.
FOOD + DRINK
By ELISABETH BECKER