Spice of life

Diners who used to get their falafel fix at the now-shuttered La Shish on Rochester Road north of 16 Mile will have to travel only a little more than a mile south to the Lebanese Grill to find a worthy replacement. Since 2004, owner Abe Charaf and his father, Mike, who serves as executive chef, have turned out classic Lebanese cuisine at their stand-alone building at the corner of Maple and Rochester in Troy. Actually, they have been at that location since 1999 when their cozy spot was called the Pita House. After five years, Abe changed the name because he felt it suggested, correctly as we shall see, too narrow a culinary repertoire to prospective patrons.

The Charafs, who have been in the business for more than 40 years, also operate another Lebanese Grill in Shelby Township.

The informal, bare-tabled restaurant, which can seat as many as 200 including the spacious banquet room, is full of desert kitsch, from swords and camels to an imposing mural of a regional village. The unusual menu further sets the mood. The four-page, colorful tabloid "newspaper" not only presents the bill of fare and photos of house specialties, it also devotes considerable space to a historical and geographical tour of Lebanon. Alas, although the small country looks and sounds idyllic, the tragic extended political crisis it has been experiencing precludes, except for the most intrepid, all but the virtual tourism provided by the Charafs.

Their menu is encyclopedic, beginning with 40 appetizers (mezza) and salads that average around $7 for substantial shareable portions. All the usual suspects — hummus, falafel, tabbouleh and meat pie — are available, along with several unusual ones like makenek, an interesting, mildly spicy mélange of sausage tidbits awash in a dense sauce dominated by lemon, garlic and cheese arayis, char-grilled pita bread stuffed with goat cheese and tomatoes. For the record, the silky hummus, crunchy tabbouleh, savory falafel and the deftly seasoned meat pie easily pass muster

A combination mezza platter for two, which goes for $27.45, will satisfy four people yearning for hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, labne, grape leaves, falafel, fried kibbeh and vegetables. As is the case in most Middle Eastern restaurants, at least half of the dishes on the menu are vegetarian-friendly.

The main courses, most of which are $13-$16, come with soup or house salad. Although the lemony green salad is more than decent, the soups are even better, with the simple house lentil and the rich chicken-rice scoring well above the median.

Deciding on soup or salad is an easy choice compared to determining what to order from among 50 dinner entrées. One way to handle that problem is to go for a combo, again recognizing that what is advertised as serving two can please four. That is the case with the house combo of shish kebab, shish tawook, shish kafta, and meat and chicken shawarma nestled in an enormous portion of rice ($25.95) or the even more elaborate Lebanese sampler featuring hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, shish kafta, tawook, grape leaves, falafel and chicken and meat shawarma ($35.50). One minor problem, often associated with Mexican combos, is the lack of a clear delineation among those items, as they tend to run into one another or are otherwise buried under the rice mountain.

The "Traditional Cooking" section of the menu is, not surprisingly, the most intriguing. Here one can feast on borgul, cracked wheat with tomatoes, onions, green peppers and mushrooms ($8.95), vegetarian ghallaba, a tangy stew of carrots, green peppers, onions, tomatoes and garlic ($11.95), or mjadara, another veggie to-die-for composed of lentils, cracked wheat and onions ($8.95). The ghallaba also can be ordered with lamb, beef, salmon, swordfish or chicken.

Among other mains are juicy yet firm char-broiled marinated shrimp, whitefish Lebanese style, beefteque (medallions of beef with garlic and lemon) and potato kibbeh.

Most of the dinner entrées are available at lower prices or in sandwich formats at lunchtime. And there is a brief children's menu, but beware that the hamburger comes wrapped in a pita that surprised Aaron, a tot who accompanied us one evening.

Soon to be enhanced with an array of Lebanese varietals, the short wine list is reasonably priced, with a full carafe of the house pour going for $16.50.

The desserts, rice pudding, cream caramel, baklava, and oshta, a sweet white pudding covered with fruit and honey, can be washed down with a pot of robust Arabic coffee.

This is the third Middle Eastern restaurant that the MT has reviewed in recent months. Like the Lebanese Grill, the other two, Ike's in Sterling Heights and Anita's (somewhat white bread, however) in Ferndale, received enthusiastic treatment. This is comforting news for the legions of foodies who used to frequent the old La Shish chain. Moreover, it also means that north- and west-siders need not travel to Dearborn to enjoy the many delights of the Middle Eastern kitchen.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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