Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Moving in

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Add another quality eatery to the vigorous Ferndale dining scene. Offering fresh Lebanese food and specialty items, newly opened Anita's Kitchen has had a healthy flow of business from the day it opened in January. But this self-styled café and marketplace is no beginner in the industry. Anita Farah's name has been locally synonymous with tasty Mediterranean cuisine for more than 25 years.

Now it's a family thing. In 2002, Anita's daughter, Jennifer Wegrzyn, and Jennifer's husband, Joe, moved from Chicago to take over day-to-day operations at Anita's Kitchen in Troy — not only to give the parents a break, but also to get a sense of whether they wanted to expand the operation. That's not to say Anita and her husband, Pierre, are no longer involved in the action. On the contrary, Pierre will sometimes put in a 70-hour week. And the food is still a result of the pair's background in the northern Lebanese city of Hasroun, near Tripoli.

The Wegrzyns expanded in both size and scope. To set the new Anita's Kitchen apart from the diner-like basics of the Troy location, the couple contributed their urban sensibilities to the atmosphere. Earth tones of avocado and red ochre predominate, and cozy fabrics hang from the high, exposed ceiling. Faux wicker chairs sit beneath cedar-topped tables, and subdued down-tempo tunes seep from the corners. Somehow the space is filled with the sensation of warm Mediterranean breezes, though sitting near the entryway in the dead of winter might bring in a northern brand of wind. They're working to fix that issue.

When the weather warms, a large, covered outdoor dining area will open up. Diners can hang outside three out of four seasons with the help of heaters. There is talk of future live music and cocktails on the patio. For now, the bar serves beer, wine and your daily allowance of fruit and vegetables via raw juice and smoothies. Fresh concoctions include the sweet-tart and frothy dark berry "anti-oxinator" and the tropical "wango tango." Jennifer Wegrzyn reckons the cool flavors of cantaloupe and mint will make the "Motown melon" a summer favorite. If none of the house mixtures appeals to you, create your own from the well-stocked produce list.

For the harder stuff, examine the small but diverse wine selection, including a couple Lebanese reds. Almost all 19 wines are available by the glass and priced in line with the food. In the first few weeks they were open without a liquor license, Anita's asked their customers what beers they would like to see on draft. The consensus was a selection of three Michigan craft brews highlighted by "Lucid," the clean and fruity Kölsch-style ale from New Holland Brewing. There are a couple more widely recognizable brands in the bottle as well as a surprisingly tasty Lebanese pilsner that pairs splendidly with most of the menu.

Drink one with the popular chicken feta fattoush, a salad loaded with vegetables and toasted pita chips then topped by savory chicken shawarma and tangy feta. One regular has been known to order it several days in a row. Salads and veggie-intensive appetizers fill a good portion of the menu. There are even a few unique pita pizzas. As with most Mediterranean cuisines, Lebanese is considered to be a very balanced, healthy diet.

If meat is your thing, you can easily fill up with kebabs or shawarma. Lamb is prominent in the form of chops, shanks and kibbeh, a mixture of ground lamb and cracked wheat that can be ordered baked or raw. Of course, there are also a couple fish dishes. Then you have that extraordinary, almost in-between dish, falafel, invented for vegetarians that like the texture of meat. Anita's makes them just right.

The ideal sampler is Anita's "mixed mezza" — for $30 you get a plate of hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush and crunchy pickled vegetables with a touch of heat. You'll also get a small plate of stuffed grape leaves and falafel, and even another plate filled with rice and an assortment of shish kebabs and shawarma. The menu claims it serves two to four people. We found it served two for dinner, a late night snack, and lunch the next day. The mixed mezza comes in a vegetarian version for $24. For an apt finish to a meal, order a pot of Turkish coffee and a tender, not-too-sweet piece of baklava.

In recent years, the structure just south of Nine Mile Road next to Ferndale's post office has been a dry cleaner, a vacant building, and an ice cream parlor. Now that it's Anita's Kitchen, we expect it to stay that way for a long time to come.

Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].


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