New cafe brings some Syrian flavour to London
The shop features pastries, coffee and exotic nuts roasted in house
Step inside Viola Gourmet Cafe and it's the smell that hits you first.
An overwhelming bouquet of spices from all over the Middle East. A few steps closer in and your nose fills with the smell of strong coffee. Further from the front door you smell what owner Mo Mbhan expects will be the big draw: fresh nuts, including exotic varieties, roasted on site.
"I know so many things from this business because when I was young, I saw how my grandfather did it," he said.
His grandfather taught Mbhan the business in a similar cafe years ago in his native Syria.
Mbhan came to London where his wife's family was living and decided to open the Viola Gourmet Cafe at 312 Commissioners Rd. W. His cafe is located in a shopping plaza about halfway between Wharncliffe Road and Wonderland Road.
The cafe has only opened with a soft launch, with a possible grand opening planned for later in the week.
Customers are already coming in for the pastries and coffee. But Mbhan says the real draw is the nuts, which are roasted in a metal roaster the size of a pizza oven built by his brother and shipped to the cafe from Dubai.
Along with dried fruit, olive oil imported from Syria in 10-litre tins and hookah pipes, Mbhan sells the nuts in bulk. After the raw nuts are roasted, they're seasoned on site in flavours like cheese and barbecue.
The family continues to operate cafes similar to Viola Gourmet in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The civil war in Syria forced the family to close the cafe there.
"Maybe in the future if my family comes back, we can open it again there," he said.
Although the official opening has yet to happen, word of the cafe has clearly spread through London's Syrian community. The entry bell rang steadily on Friday, apparently in response to a post about the cafe on a London Syrian community Facebook page.
Omar Arwani was one of many customers visiting the cafe for the first time on Friday. A 16-year Canadian resident born in Syria, Arwani said the nuts alone will make him a regular.
"This is the first time I've seen a store like this here," he said.
Mbhan would like to see the business grow enough to possibly add similar cafes to other Ontario cities. For now, he's focused on getting the London location launched.
"We're just starting out here, we have to see what happens," he said.