Mideast feasts

Oct 3, 2007 at 12:00 am

Al-Ajami 14633 W. Warren, Dearborn, 313-846-9330, $; Al-Ajami is no worse than, but no better than, a slew of other Middle Eastern restaurants, with uneven quality to its cuisine and cleanliness. So what does Al-Ajami do right? It’s less expensive than La Shish. Chef and co-owner Stephan Ajami offers 15 seafood dishes. Also good are the chicken lemon, which combines grilled chicken and pilaf with vegetables doused in lemon butter, a terrific chicken rice soup and a good lentil soup. Servings are enormous.

Al-Ameer 12710 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn, 313-582-8185; 27346 Ford Rd., Dearborn Heights, 313-565-9600; Owner Khalil Ameer says with pride that his Lebanese fare isn’t Americanized factory food. He has labored to stay true to the Lebanese table, offering fresh bread, serving no pork or liquor, and preparing food that’s not overwhelmed by spices and herbs. And the dishes are made to order. Instead of simply ordering a vegetarian platter, diners may choose among vegetarian grape leaves, tomato kibbee, green bean stew, eggplant stew, a “veggie galaba” of rice, mushrooms, carrots, green peppers — and, if you must have it, they’ll add more spice. The restaurant in Dearborn, which seats 200, has been open since 1989, and a new, equally commodious location in Dearborn Heights a year and a half ago.

Anita’s Kitchen 110 W. Maple, Troy, 248-362-0680, $, A crowded lunch spot for Troy cubicle workers, this friendly café offers good food, reasonable prices and large portions of Middle Eastern and American foods. And, after many successful years of catering to the office crowd, general manager Joe Wegrzyn tells us that, at the end of October, Anita’s will make its bid for a more serious dining crowd with a second location in Ferndale, on Woodward south of Nine Mile Road at the former home of the Frostbite ice cream parlor.

Beirut Palace 105 S. Main St., Royal Oak, 248-399-4600; 2095 15 Mile Rd., Sterling Heights, 586-795-0424, $; The Royal Oak location is situated just across the street from the Main Art Theatre and makes a great start to a night at the movies, particularly on unseasonably warm fall nights. (They take in their chairs Oct. 15.) And while we certainly would never suggest patrons smuggle food into the show, shawarma is definitely easier to pick out of teeth than popcorn. At Beirut, they make all their own bread — definitely a plus in an industry where prepacked, hard-to-chew pitas abound. Their sandwiches include those made with lamb tongue and chicken liver. Gourmands with a more American palate might seek out the potato skins appetizer. All food is very fresh, and they make a great Turkish coffee. Have a nargilah pipe at your table for $11.95.

Byblos Cafe & Grill 87 W. Palmer St, Detroit, 313-831-4420, $; Located near Wayne State University, Byblos offers a Lebanese- and Middle Eastern-inspired menu featuring more than 90 dishes. The servers are friendly and helpful, making this an excellent place for those eager to dip their toes into a larger culinary world. While their juices and Lebanese dishes are quite good — the Moujadara sandwich is a particular favorite — they also offer more run-of-the-mill fare like quesadillas, fettucine Alfredo and grape Crush. Their wraps and sandwiches are a bargain and top out at around $5. A wide selection and easy-on-the-wallet prices.

Cedarland Restaurant 13007 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn, 313-582-4849, $$; When the three brothers who own Cedarland converted the large bank building on the corner of Warren and Hartwell into a restaurant, they retained the drive-through window for quick orders. Whether eating in or taking out, the baba is creamy, with a roasted, earthy aroma and just the right bite. You can order it as an appetizer or a side dish.

Elie’s Cafe & Fresh Juice Bar 263 Pierce St., Birmingham, 248-647-2420, $$; Elie’s menu is supplemented with a sheet of daily specials, but even the standard menu is full of unusual Middle Eastern delicacies and a dozen vegetarian entrées, falafel or veggie combo plate are popular favorites. A favorite for lunch, even though the supply of hot pita loaves can run short.

La Shish locations in Dearborn, Warren, Farmington Hills, Canton, Livonia, Troy, Roseville, Westland, Clinton Township, Auburn Hills, Orchard Lake and Ann Arbor, $$; Recent news reports say that the chain that set the standard for American-friendly Middle Eastern food is listing badly in the aftermath of government accusations (denied) against founder (and now fugitive) Talal Chahine as a tax cheat and supporter of terror. The chain built its reputation on generously portioned fare and vegetable drinks, but mixed culinary reviews seem to prevail these days.

M&M Cafe 13714 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, 313-581-5775, $: Tender loving care, dished up along with great food, and served in spacious and attractive digs. The menu is a mix of American and Lebanese: hamburgers, chef salad and turkey sandwiches, kafta, hommous and laban. The grilled shrimp is divine; just as good is a garlicky, buttery lemon chicken topped with thinly sliced mushrooms and served with rice pilaf.

Mr. Kabob 3372 Coolidge Hwy., Berkley, 248-545-4000, $: There was a time not long ago when you stopped at a service station for gas and maybe a candy bar. Although most now have morphed into convenience stores offering sandwiches, donuts and slurpies, few if any flaunt the restaurant-quality cuisine turned out at Mr. Kabob, located inside a Sunoco station at the corner of 12 Mile and Coolidge. Most popular is the chicken kebab dinner, with your choice of rice or fries and soup or salad for $10.95.

Phoenicia Restaurant 588 S. Old Woodward, Birmingham, 248-644-3122, $$$; Proprietor Sameer Eid has been serving meticulously prepared Middle Eastern food to the locals since 1970. He knows his way around the kitchen, and gives a more sophisticated spin to the well-known litany of shish kebab, shish kafta, baked kibbee and lamb chops. Seafood is a specialty, including whitefish, Dover sole, grilled salmon, and a fish long known in the Mediterranean but relatively new to the American table: bronzini.

Pita Cafe 25282 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park, 248-968-2225, $$: It’s a busy place underneath the pretend grape arbor, because both the familiar (baba, the popular chicken shawarma, roasted vegetables) and the less so (arayis, ghallaba) are excellent. In business since the early 1990s, Pita Café has since expanded into Birmingham and Novi.

Steve’s Back Room 19872 Kelly Rd., Harper Woods, 313-527-5047; 24935 Jefferson, St. Clair Shores, 586-774-4545, $$, An east side institution since 1988, the 15-year-old eatery behind the swinging saloon doors of a grocery in Harper Woods is still open for lunch, but owner Steve Kalil has moved the main operation to the booming “Nautical Mile” of St. Clair Shores. The house specials feature what is best about Middle Eastern food: the sprightly flavors of lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil, vegetables used in inventive ways, meat as a minor player. Desserts are standouts.

Yossi’s Israeli Cuisine 7325 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield, 248-626-0160, $$; At Yossi’s, much of the menu is similar to what you might find in an Arabic restaurant — kebabs, hummus, shwarma, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, fattoush — but with differences that are both subtle and substantial. Dishes with the same names may be seasoned differently or prepared differently. Israeli cuisine also incorporates influences from Morocco, with its emphasis on spices and slow cooking. All appetizers are vegetarian, as are four entrées. Coming on the heels of Sukkoth, wander in for a taste of the harvest.