SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Jamal Samad prides himself on the simplicity of the food at his restaurant, Samad Mediterranean Grill and Market. But simple isn’t easy, he said, like most people think.
“The harder thing is to keep things simple and tasty, and make it healthy,” said Jamal, with a thick Lebanese accent.
Jamal said the kitchen staff, including himself, doesn’t compromise or cut corners. Everything at Samad Grill is made with fresh ingredients. And, everything – except the gyro meat, which is Halal, and pita bread – is made from scratch.
His wife of 28 years, Lesley Samad, sitting beside him in a small, cozy booth by the door, interjected to say the food is still rather complex and layered.
“I will tell you, I’ve never met a stranger,” Lesley said at one point, laughing. “He’s much more quiet than I am.”
Lesley offered an American perspective on the Lebanon way of Mediterranean cuisine. She said it tends to be more “elevated,” and it has more attitude, anchored in pride. She also said Lebanese food is more herb- and garlic-heavy.
“There's a lot of love in the food,” Jamal added. “Love is an important ingredient.”
Jamal opened the restaurant in 2012. After receiving his master's degree in France, he came to the states to get his Ph.D. in physics in 1992, but marriage and family happened.
“I use a formula here and there,” he said jokingly.
He spent years working in kitchens before turning to the hard sciences. But he also grew up with his mother’s and grandmother’s cooking in Lebanon. While he has tried to duplicate it, he said it’s not possible.
Lesley said the same goes for Jamal’s cooking.
“I will make things, and it will still taste really, really good — still not his,” she said. “It’s a touch.”
People ask Jamal all the time for his recipes and the ingredients he uses. He freely gives them away, knowing the real secret is balance.
Those queries are partly the reason for the market. In the back corner of the restaurant, Jamal sells items he uses in his own cooking. There’s a couple of aisles stocked with mostly exported goods with labels in other languages — herbs and spices, jams, desserts, coffee, other items.
Many countries are represented in the market, Lesley said. In addition to foods from Lebanon, the shelves boast products from Croatia, Turkey, Greece and Egypt.
“A lot of people comment — they'll say, ‘I haven't seen this since I was a little kid,’” she said.
Food is the star of the show at Samad Grill. Jamal once spent thousands on renovations, but the space remains unpretentious like the Styrofoam foodware.
Diner-style tables are spread throughout on unpolished floors, eaten away with time. Ketchup bottles along with salt and pepper shakers are at the ends.
Regular customers have advised Jamal not to change anything, lending to a down-to-earth personality and a certain ambience that restaurant hidden gems tend to have.
“When it’s busy, it has a life of its own,” Lesley said. “The energy is great in here. Some of our customers have become friends with each other.”
Underneath chalk board menus, several potted pothos plants sit on the ordering counter, their tendrils hanging off the side. Lesley said Lebanon is rich with gorgeous fruit trees, making the greenery an appropriate touch.
Other decorations are minimal, save around 10 quirky clocks on the back wall with the customer-created chalk designs on the bottom half. The black paint was a contentious design element, Lesley said, but it grew on her husband.
“It’s the small victories in marriage,” she said, on her way to wipe down tables.
Lesley handles the front of the house, and Jamal stays in the kitchen with other staff. Their daughters help at the business, too. Once the doors opened and customers began trickling in March 29, their daughter Maya arrived.
Spread out on several Styrofoam plates, Lesley provided a bit of everything. On one, there was an array of salads — chickpea, spinach, cabbage, beet and pasta salads with various bases seasoned with fresh herbs and garlic. There was also a thick lentil soup.
The falafel, each ball with a crisp coating and soft center, came with pita bread and an assortment of dips, including tahini and garlic sauce. While Jamal said the whole menu is his favorite, he highlighted the falafel as a top tier pick along with the kafta kabob.
Lesley brought over one of her favorites, too — the flash-fried cauliflower, seasoned with salt and coated in tahini dressing.
“People will say, ‘We got off the plane and came straight here,’” Lesley said. “And that is a huge compliment because there are only two places in the world I do that to.”
The Samads know most customers by name and still see some that have been coming since day 1. While the customer base in the first few years was primarily repeat patrons, the dynamic shifted with strong community support and word of mouth.
The restaurant also saw more light during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many restaurants, the pandemic impacted Samad Grill. Most of the money rolling in came in the form of take-out orders. But the space changed in a more exceptional way — it became a pop-up food pantry for Sandy Springs schools.
In March 2020, Lesley received a message from a PTO president who said all the subsidized school breakfasts and lunches would be closed, even for those facing food insecurity. Samad Grill saw up to 400 families a day over the course of 18 months, a line wrapping around the corner of the building.
“This area is the haves and the have-nots,” Lesley said.