The new Backroom

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Steve’s is a back room no more. 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 new building is spacious, with a round room in one corner meant to evoke a lighthouse, more reminiscent of Maine than the Middle East. Inside, a mural of the Aegean Sea takes us back to the Mediterranean.

I have to confess that I am something of a Luddite, and in my view, what’s good about the new Steve’s is where it has stayed the same as the old one. There’s still a little store where you can buy take-out, already dished up, or tins of baklava, or extra-virgin olive oil, or hookahs, or inlaid tables. But the new store is slicker than the old one.

It’s not as crowded as the old Steve’s, but the tables are closely spaced and you can still expect a wait on a Friday or Saturday night. The white linen has been replaced with silvery embroidered tablecloths, which have to be protected by thick sheets of plastic. “Monkey dishes” (condiment-sized portions) and half-orders are still available, something I wish would catch on with more restaurants.

There’s not been much tinkering with the food, thank goodness, though I found myself wondering if the spice level had been toned down. Maybe it was my imagination. 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. An olive here or there would have been welcome.

Appetizers run from shrimp cocktail (?) to lamb tongues. Fool mudammas is a cold dish of fava beans tossed with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. I like to pack it into a little wedge of pita bread. The baked eggplant is prepared with tomato sauce and roasted peppers; the garlic-herb sauce that is supposed to come with it was missing.

Lots of dishes come either with or without meat. Artichoke hearts is a case in point. I ordered it stuffed with ground lamb and onions, but you can fit very little meat into an artichoke heart, and the vegetarian alternative is probably just as good.

For meat lovers, there are grilled items that don’t skimp on the protein. The co-diner, who doesn’t think it’s dinner unless there is meat, ordered a combination plate of lamb kebab and shish kafta with hummus. These are well-prepared. I especially like shish kafta, where ground lamb is patted around a skewer and grilled.

On a weekday evening, we asked for a table in the smaller, round “lighthouse” room. It is quieter there, a good place to talk. My friend found the sheikh-el-mahshi, an eggplant dish with ground lamb and spices cooked with a tomato sauce, too oily, which was unfortunate because you don’t have to use a lot of oil when the eggplant is baked.

Service can be inconsistent. On a Friday night when the place was packed, our server seemed to forget about us between dinner and dessert. Another time I ordered a combination plate of kibbe neyeh (raw lamb with bulghur), baked kibbe, grape leaves and koussa (a small summer squash stuffed with lamb and rice). When it came to the table, it didn’t seem like $13.95 worth of food, and I noticed that the kibbe neyeh was missing. Instead of admitting to the mistake, our server brought a full platter of kibbe, saying cheerfully, “Here it is!” Now my dinner seemed like a bargain.

One place where Steve’s has it over other area Middle Eastern restaurants is in the desserts. Two are standouts: apricots baked in liqueur, stuffed with pistachio nut butter and topped with yogurt, whipped cream, and sugared almonds. Another recommendation is “cream berry delight” — phyllo cups filled with a sweet pastry cheese, topped with whipped cream and strewn with fresh berries and raspberry sauce. The fragile, brittle phyllo is an interesting contrast to the creamy cheese. I regretted that they were out of the fig tart, since I’ve really had a taste for figs lately.

What’s missing at the new Backroom? The charm of the old Steve’s. Oh well, progress.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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