The Detroit Free Press said that Al-Ajami was last year’s best Middle Eastern restaurant, so I thought I should check it out. If it was best last year, it’s not now. I should have been tipped off by the review: “Hummus that is smooth. Stuffed grape leaves bursting with rice and meat. Salads that are crunchy.”
To which I reply, “Duh.”
Hummus is smooth, by definition. Stuffed grape leaves are bursting with rice and meat (lamb, to be precise). If the only criterion for an award-winning salad is crunchy, then 90 percent of salads qualify.
Al-Ajami is no worse than, but no better than, a slew of other Middle Eastern restaurants, and I found several dishes under par.
So what does Al-Ajami do right? It’s less expensive than La Shish. Chef and co-owner Stephan Ajami offers 15 seafood dishes. My companion was thrilled with his whole red snapper, with its crisp, salty skin; I found the fish a bit chewy. It’s served, unaccountably, with tartar sauce as well as a thin, sour tahini sauce.
Other seafood choices are perch, sea bass, whitefish and “the ultimate surf & turf.” My friend raved, again, about the calamary: a half-dozen rectangular slabs rather than circles. I thought they were fine, if not chewy.
I loved my chicken lemon, which combines grilled chicken and pilaf with vegetables doused in lemon butter. Most prominent are artichokes, and they are splendid. Also good, though a little bland, was the stuffed lamb over rice, which consisted of impossibly tender lamb chunks (no stuffing evident).
Also in his favor, Ajami makes a terrific chicken rice soup. His secret, he says, is a seasoning mix from Russia called “Cordova,” which includes cumin and seasoning salt. The effect is a subtle but successful difference from mom’s chicken soup. The lentil soup is also good.
But the restaurant’s tabbouleh tastes like grass, with the same feel in the mouth. The hummus is a bit bland (yes, it is smooth), and the baba ghanoush is appropriately smoky. On the night I visited, the falafel was way overcooked, dry and hard.
As for the standards — shish kafta and kabob, chicken kabobs — they are standard. Servings are enormous. I was still eating the chicken lemon a week later.
For breakfast, served anytime, Ajami offers maanic and sojok, two sausage dishes mixing beef and lamb. I tried arayes, ground beef on toasted pita, and it was greasier than at other restaurants. It comes with a huge pile of fries, pickles and pickled turnips. Next time I’d try fateh, which combines laban (condensed yogurt), hummus and pine nuts.
The rice pudding is unusual, topped with walnuts and coconut and tasting mostly of honey. The rice is not evident, nor is the richness of cream. It’s not to my taste, but you might want to check it out. The crème caramel is standard — slightly smoky sauce on a generous serving.
As to atmosphere, when I visited most customers were Middle Eastern, including an engagement party (lots of triple cheek-kissing). They must know something I don’t, or maybe they’ve come for the beef tongue and veal brain, served as appetizers or on sandwiches.
The restaurant is well designed: one big room with a raised area and a bright pastel abstract mural. There’s a floor-to-ceiling fake flower arrangement.
The servers provide a lagniappe: placed on your table as you sit down are a head of romaine, a bunch of scallions, a whole tomato, some cucumbers and some radishes. You could chop them up and make your own salad or take them home and save on next week’s grocery bill.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].