Review: Sullaf Iraqi restaurant is the last man standing in Detroit’s ‘Chaldean Town’ — and it’s awesome 

click to enlarge One of the two versions of lamb shank we got at Detroit’s Sullaf.

Tom Perkins

One of the two versions of lamb shank we got at Detroit’s Sullaf.

Sullaf, an Iraqi restaurant on Seven Mile Road just east of Woodward Avenue, is one of those spots at which the experience is nearly as important to the equation as the dishes.

The business is one of the few along a stretch of Seven Mile Road that the Chaldean residents who once lived there called "Chaldean Town" in the late 1990s. But the neighborhood suffered an economic decline that's severe even for Detroit, and most of the Chaldean, or Iraqi Christian, population is now gone. The remnants of restaurants like the Bahi, Tigris, and Iraqi Bakery just down the street sit vacant and fading.

But there's still plenty of life at Sullaf. Not long after the restaurant opens each morning at 11 a.m, it fills with customers who are mostly Iraqi men. It gets loud from the clatter from the restaurant's three employees juggling 20 orders in the cluttered kitchen, and two regularly ringing telephones. Flames occasionally leap feet from the grill as fat and juices from beef and chicken kebabs drips in the hissing fire, and amid it all chef Safaa Momika wields skewers that look like blunt swords wrapped in kofta.

Depending on when you're there, the smoke from the charcoal grill is either thick or not as thick, and the absence of a menu at Sullaf adds to it all. Momika says the restaurant has about six or seven dishes, and if people don't know what they are, then he'll tell them. So there's a lot of shouting over the clatter between Momika and the customers at Sullaf.

The whole scene is a bit chaotic and it's a personal place, and that's partly what makes it fun. On each trip, strangers talked to us or each other about how much they love the food. It's like everyone is excited to know of and be at Sullaf.

click to enlarge Sullaf - TOM PERKINS
  • Tom Perkins
  • Sullaf

Of course, this would mean nothing if the food is lousy. And even though I didn't know exactly what I was ordering beyond whether it was lamb shank, chicken kebab, etc., Sullaf rewarded my faith. Iraqi food is something slightly different in Detroit, a region that typically equates "Middle Eastern" cuisine with Lebanese fare. While there is some overlap among Iraq and Lebanon's recipe books, there are clear differences. Regardless, Momika says what sets his place apart from any other Middle Eastern spot is that he shows up each morning and starts cooking everything fresh. The day is done at 5 p.m., if the food lasts that long.

Among Sullaf's best plates is the lamb shank, and though I ordered "lamb shank" on two separate trips, different dishes arrived. During one meal, the shank looked like a white club bearing a huge bulb of slide-off-the-bone meat laced with glorious lamb fat. A second version arrived in a bowl with a large shank with super tender pink and red meat. Sullaf submerges it in a volcanic-looking stew with whole cooked tomatoes, onions, oil, and serves it with triangles of pita bread. It's a piquant and lemony dish — the kind that you think about for a week after the meal.

Sullaf's kofta logs of ground meat don't come packed with quite as much parsley and onion as many Lebanese spots, but it's still there along with heavy hits of cumin and some variation of the classic Middle Eastern cinnamon-allspice-cardamom combo. Momika hangs the kofta on the skewer over the wood-charcoal grill which imparts an intense smoke flavor, and it wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable without that element.

Ditto for the chicken kebabs, a dish in which sizable cubes of bird are stained pink from sour sumac. The beef shawarma is nothing short of incredible and grainy in texture from the sumac and other spices. All plates arrive with a bowl of electric yellow, crunchy turshi — Iraqi pickles — tomatoes, raw onion, and lemon that should be used to enhance each bite.

On the side, stews called fasoulia hold either white beans or spinach in tomato based-both that's heavy with black pepper, onion, oil, and lemon. The thick crushed lentil soup is superior to that of any other I've come across in Detroit. All meals come with white or yellow basmati rice.

Is that it for Sullaf's menu? I can't tell you. Everything is a bit of a guess until you get your footing, but rest assured that it's difficult to take a wrong turn.

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