MIDDLE EAST FEAST
Definitively decide on the best Middle Eastern restaurant in metro Detroit. At first, I leaped at the chance. It soon became clear, however, that the way was fraught with peril. I couldn’t visit them all in a reasonable time.
Should I try the well-known places or look for that storefront gem that only locals know about? When I called ACCESS, the Arab community center, to ask for recommendations, they faxed a list of 20 restaurants just in Dearborn. "Which is best?" I pleaded.
"No way," said one staffer. "Whatever you say, you’ll have someone mad at you."
No problem there, but what goes into defining "best"?
Should you look just at the tried-and-true dishes everyone orders, such as hummus, or test how well the restaurant branches out? Go purely on flavor, or should value-per-dollar or excellence of service come into play?
In the end, I stuck mostly with the usual suspects, mostly in Dearborn. Prices are pretty similar everywhere, with sandwiches always a bargain.
I don’t usually root for the big guys, and La Shish is certainly the 800-pound gorilla, with a half-dozen locations (counting Talal’s (22041 Michigan, Dearborn, 313-565-5500), which shares a building with La Shish West (313-562-7200). But the food is undeniably tasty, and the warm and puffy pita alone, baked on an open hearth in the middle of the premises, is worth a visit. Even the desserts are sterling.
The food at Pita Cafe (25282 Greenfield, Oak Park, 248-968-2225) is just as good, and there’s more variety. Try arayis (lamb, pine nuts, tahini), chicken ghallaba, Caesar salad tawook, creme caramel, or whole lentil soup. There’s a Pita Cafe in Birmingham too (239 N. Woodward, 248-645-6999).
Most of the restaurants have similar menus. The exceptions are Talal’s and Khan Merjan (6431 Miller Rd., Dearborn, 313-581-8585), which is Iraqi.
If a liquor license is your priority, you’ll have to go to Talal’s, an upscale version of La Shish. It offers a range of seafood, from smoked salmon to calamari and crab patties. Attention is paid to each detail of the sausages, cheese pastries and goat- and sheep-cheese mellee, the Middle Eastern version of pizza. Talal’s is considerably more expensive than the other restaurants, with entrees averaging $14.95.
At Khan Merjan, you can sit on the floor at a low table, lean back on red cushions, and have any number of unfamiliar dishes explained to you.
Other findings (all addresses are in Dearborn): Hummus tastes the same everywhere, and could use more garlic. The one place I found it too dry was at Country Chicken (5131 Schaefer, 313-582-6677), a small and basic storefront. On the other hand, Country Chicken serves excellent baba ghannouj and a nutty tahini sauce, sandwiches of lamb brains or tongue, and several meat dishes made with coriander. Huge portions, but no juices, no desserts.
Cedarland (1307 W. Warren, 313-582-4849) has the best garlic sauce, which is a lovely creamy ivory, not as biting as some. Cedarland’s falafel is also good, and it must be the only Middle East restaurant with drive-through.
Basketballs and Girl Scout cookies? Just dunk ’em. The Detroit Shock is offering discount tickets to Girl Scout cookie buyers. Call 313-972-4475, ext. 239, for order forms. ... Get healthy at vegetarian cooking classes offered by Lenore’s Natural Cuisine, 22899 Inkster Rd., Farmington Hills. Upcoming classes include "Marvelous Mexican" and "Intro to Macrobiotic Principles." Call 248-478-4455 for more.