The restaurant at 435 N. Salina St. looks like an ordinary restaurant. Near the door, a smiling floor manager stands at a podium, greets diners with a warm hello and leads them to tables set simply with cloth napkins, flatware and Mason jar water glasses.
Behind the kitchen door, a team of cooks works the line. The smell of cardamom and other spices wafts into the dining room and servers pop in and out of the kitchen, delivering meals, offering more tea and removing spent dishes.
With Love, Pakistan is no ordinary restaurant, however. Pick up the pay phone and you’ll hear a recorded voice speaking Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. Take a look around the small dining room and you’ll see classroom-size maps of South-Central Asia, an array of colorful pillows for diners who wish to sit on the floor rather than at tables, and a short menu that is designed to both appeal to guests and meet the needs of students honing their skills and craft.
“This is our classroom,” says Adam Sudmann, program manager for Onondaga Community College Workforce Development. “We’re all learning here.”
With Love, Pakistan is a workforce training restaurant and entrepreneur incubator, staffed by six nontraditional students. It’s a collaborative project of Onondaga Community College and CenterState CEO. The cuisine will change every six months, reflecting the national or regional cuisine of its “restaurateur in residence.”
For its inaugural run, With Love is being guided by Sarah Robin, 31, a native of Pakistan who came to Central New York as a refugee four years ago. She recently completed CenterState CEO’s Up Start Business Development Program and plans to open her own restaurant in Syracuse in the near future.
Pakistani cuisine is complex, varies from place to place and changes with the seasons. Staple ingredients include onions, garlic, ginger and a long list of spices, including cardamom, coriander, cumin and mint. Meals are built around vegetables, legumes, rice, lamb, poultry and other meats, soups, stews and curries.
Few dishes are made in a hurry. They’re made with great attention to detail and with love, says Robin, who beams with pride when customers compliment her cuisine.
With Love’s menu is short and sweet, as it details the ingredients in each dish as well as the intended lesson for students. The apple pakora appetizer, for example, is made with Granny Smith apples, chickpea batter and chaat masala, a blend of ground spices (such as cumin and coriander). Student-chefs fry the battered apple chunks to golden brown, before plating them with a garnish of mint-cilantro yogurt.
The haleem main course is a lesson in slow cooking: Minced Halal chicken, wheat, barley, lentils and “too many spices to list,” cooked until it reaches a pasty consistency.
One dessert is offered: Gajar halwa, a blend of carrots, ghee (clarified butter), cardamom, almonds and pistachios, served warm in a ramekin. It’s savory and comforting, a reminder for Robin of winter in Pakistan.
With Love, Pakistan opened in early December and, after the bumps and challenges and tweaks that come with starting a new restaurant, is now “hitting its stride,” Sudmann says. It’s fitting that the restaurant and training program is taking root on the North Side, a historic neighborhood of immigrants that in recent years has welcomed an influx of refugees from Vietnam, Burma, Somalia, Bhutan, Nepal and other countries.
Diners are finding the place thanks to positive word of mouth: Sudmann had to turn away more than 20 guests on a recent Friday, as another dozen people patiently waited for tables. The restaurant can now accept credit cards and may one day serve beer and wine.
And now that the students are getting comfortable with their fundamental tasks and responsibilities, they’re starting to flex their creative muscles. They might “stretch” the menu, Sudmann says, and add some daily specials.
Last week, the students experimented with a salmon salad with Pakistani flavor: seared salmon with a garam masala crust, served on a bed of greens tossed with a cumin-infused vinaigrette and garnished with cashews and pickled carrot ribbons. Grilled salmon and salmon salad is common on restaurant menus, Sudmann said in a Facebook post, so searing fish is a good skill for his students to have.
Sudmann describes his role at With Love as one of leader, instructor, coach, custodian and mentor. He has experience in restaurants and in producing large-scale events. Sudmann is also the founder of My Lucky Tummy, a series of pop-up dinners in Syracuse spotlighting international home cooking prepared by members of the local immigrant and refugee community. (The next My Lucky Tummy event is scheduled for Feb. 4; visit myluckytummy.com for details.)
“This is much different, much smaller,” Sudmann says. “It has been really interesting to focus on all the details of running a restaurant.”
Sarah Robin, the “restaurateur in residence,” says With Love gives her confidence in cooking her recipes and modifying them for an audience outside the home, as well as critical experience in managing and running a restaurant and interacting with customers.
“I’m following my dreams,” she says. “This makes me so happy and so proud.”
With Love is open for lunch Tuesdays and Wednesdays, noon to 2 p.m., and for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays, 5 to 8 p.m. For information, call 870-3861 or visit withloverestaurant.com or facebook.com/withlovesyracuse.