Detroit’s Leila offers a different take on Lebanese cuisine

If you go, don't order the same things you order in Dearborn. Order what you don't find on other menus.

Dec 15, 2022 at 9:00 am
One of the most-ordered items at Leila is a mixed grill of shishes.
One of the most-ordered items at Leila is a mixed grill of shishes. Tom Perkins

After your visit the Leila software sends you an email: “How likely are you to recommend Leila to others? 1-10.” I object to the question — no room for nuance! My nuanced answer is that I would recommend Leila to others if they want alcohol with their Lebanese food, if they want to try some dishes not usually seen in our area's abundance of Lebanese restaurants, and, especially, if money is no object. If they're just going to order what most guests are ordering (see below), don't bother.

When I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was about to visit Leila (pronounced Layla), she made a little face like, “Why?” Her view was that it wasn't worth it to pay twice as much as the norm. If you go to Leila, don't order the same things you order in Dearborn and expect them to be twice as good. Order what you don't find on other menus, sit back, and enjoy your wine.

Because, according to manager Taylor Cramer, the most-ordered items, after the Lebanita cocktail, are hummus, spiced fried potatoes (batata harra), and a mixed grill of shishes. Really, Detroit diners? You're splurging at a fancy downtown place and that's as far out as you want to venture?

You can get hummus and falafel anywhere! Consider instead something off the beaten path, like moghrabieh, which is lavender-braised chicken with couscous. It's lemony yet bland, one-note yet rich, and it could have used more chicken. Actually, I liked this better the next day as take-home, once the flavors had had time to settle, but it's a revelation in any case. Unique.

Or eggplant fettah, a real carnival of flavors including chickpeas, lamb confit, and yogurt, though it was disappointingly light on eggplant. Though this is on the “hot mezze” menu, it's big enough for an entrée, and I raved about it throughout the meal.

Likewise garlic confit, tender half-burnt cloves mixed with tomatoes and basil in a soy reduction, with lots of sauce for sopping. This was different, and I loved it.

I remarked to a staffer that this was the first time I'd had ribs in a Lebanese restaurant. He said that was a frequent comment; the ribs are a transfer from the Eid family's other Lebanese restaurant, the long-lived Phoenicia in Birmingham. Apparently patriarch Sameer Eid learned to love ribs long ago during his time in Austin. I found the ribs too dry, though, and the meat sparse, and the barbecue sauce on the side was standard-issue. You have better places to eat ribs in Detroit.

Leila is obviously not halal, but there is one halal dish on the menu, the $72 Creekstone Ribeye with Lebanese zip sauce.

Reverting to the Lebanese tried and true: the mixed grill is lots of meat, two skewers each of shish tawook, shish kafta, and shish kebab. The chicken is nicely charred and the lamb in the shish kafta is succulent, with some fatty bits I appreciated. Here's to more lamb on area menus! The ribeye in the kebab was not super tender, plain but good. This is all served with excellent house-baked pita to soak up the juices and sauces, including a fine whipped toum. Skip the side of rice with boring tomato sauce.

Hummus & Hashwi is another “available elsewhere” dish, along with fattoush, baba ghanouj, mjaddara, arayes, and sujuk. It foregrounds ground lamb and pine nuts in a warm, smooth, and creamy concoction that does the chef proud. The mjaddara is also fine — who doesn't like caramelized onions? — and it's surrounded by a tabbouleh-like mix that includes jalapeños.

For dessert, one night we ordered a cigar roll, which is a normal baklavah. And another it was a Lebanese sundae, which is ashta ice cream made with orange blossoms, a few pistachios, and “fairy floss” — like cotton candy but less ethereal.

That popular Lebanita, the biggest seller on the menu, is tequila, spiced pear, almond, honey, and lemon juice, and the other cocktails share a propensity to sweetness. The daiquiri includes za'atar and baking spice! There's arak, too, distilled from grapes and anise seeds and tasting of licorice. Leila's wine list is very long, $11-$19 by the glass, $38-$475 by the bottle, and there's one Lebanese pilsner. I liked an appropriately bitey Prosecco and a mild Côtes du Rhône.

Lighting is dim, with black tables, banquettes, and napkins, the gloom relieved by enormous chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows on trendy Capitol Park.

Consider Leila if you're looking for something different — but then don't just go and order the $10 fries.

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