310 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-399-4900
Gemmayze [je-MAY-zee] calls itself "a spirited restaurant," and it is. It serves wine, beer, house-made sangría and cocktails, thus distinguishing itself from most Lebanese places, and it has an assured, cool ambience that's undeniably attractive.
It's named after Beirut's old bohemian quarter, and though no one would call Royal Oak bohemian, you can see why the Toledo-based owners chose that city to attempt a trendy feel for a cuisine that, in its metro Detroit incarnation, seems not to have changed for many a year. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
So Gemmayze offers such drinks as the Bird of Paradise, with whipped cream-flavored vodka, or Plum Outrageous, with plum vodka, plum sake, elderflower liqueur and muddled cucumbers, or four brands of arak, the strong, anise-flavored liquor of Lebanon. The wine list, mostly Californian, includes eight bottles from Lebanon, three of them by the glass. The list's sections are conveniently labeled: "Crisp & Clean," "Rich & Luscious," etc., and I found my generous pour of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau Ksara in Lebanon appropriately Big & Bold, if non-memorable, and the Plum Outrageous a good choice for a hot night, refreshingly cuke-flavored.
Besides the familiar Middle Eastern favorites, the menu includes such nonstandard dishes as sumac-encrusted tuna, lamb-sausage pizza, American-style steaks and even the Italian brachioli — beef tenderloin stuffed with ham and mozzarella.
The walls of the long, narrow space are decorated with bright pieces of Persian carpet simulacra. There are sidewalk tables and a lounge upstairs with DJs Friday and Saturday, with Bruce Cobb on percussion on Sunday.
All good. Where Gemmayze falls partway down is its food, which is uneven — and it's the basics that are least good. Though pita is baked on the premises, it's tasteless and floury. Hummus is bland. Tum, the garlic paste, isn't even smooth and creamy. Fattoush is overloaded with pita and lacks greenery. All the standard kebabs, on the other hand, are above average, and the scallops are works of art. My advice is to choose carefully, and keep your emphasis on meat.
That wouldn't include lamb shank osso buco though ($22). Gemmayze's comes on an imposing bone with a big sharp knife that is quite unnecessary, since the lamb is as tender as it can be. But the mild tomato sauce that coats the meat is unexciting. So were the two sides I chose: zataar risotto and lubia bi zeit, the latter being green beans braised in tomatoes and olive oil — fine but not out of this world. The soft risotto tasted not of zataar, the oregano-related herb, only of chicken broth.
In the Gemmayze Trio, a large appetizer to share, two out of three are well-spiced and worth ordering. Grape leaves are stuffed with ground lamb. Ara-yes halabi is kafta (ground lamb with onions and spices) rolled in pita and baked. Only the ground chicken wrapped in markouk, a flatbread, was bland, except for the pickle.
Baba ghannooch (an original spelling) is superior to the hummus, with a strong smoky flavor, but not a lot of the eggplant comes through. We had better luck with silky asparagus chowder, both creamy and tart, a special but a definite keeper.
Beef tenderloin kebabs are done just right — the server asks your preference, so you can get them medium rare, not dried-out as sometimes happens in Lebanese restaurants. Swordfish, spicy shish kafta and chicken kebabs are moist too, and threaded with peppers and onions. A platter of any three skewers, or any entrée, comes with two sides, such as the green beans or Lebanese potatoes, fried in olive oil and lemon. The house salad is a good choice here, with lots of good fresh feta sprinkled over.
Also standouts were two orange-glazed quail, always a puzzle to pick apart, but so worth it. Their skin crisp and delicately orange flavored, they create plenty of luscious sopping sauce, good with the potatoes. Scallops are presented topped with microgreens and lovely diced purple pickled turnips. They're slightly salty, burnished just to the right degree of crispness. Our waiter said they would soon join the regular menu, which is about to undergo a price restructuring — downward.
I'm guessing that Gemmayze's pizzas are well worth trying, since they're out of the ordinary; they may be trendy in the original Beirut Gemmayze. One is shrimp with feta cream sauce, another is makanic (lamb sausage) and hot peppers (but omit the mozzarella), a third is portobellos, artichokes, goat cheese, caramelized onions and Parmesan, all on oval flatbread for $12.
Desserts include lemon cake, sorbetto and rice pudding. We tried crème brûlée and found it adequate, with a good thick crust, but not enough of the burnt (brûlée) taste one hopes for.
Gemmayze, open since May 2011, has the right idea. It just needs a bit more work in the kitchen.
The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and closes at 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and midnight Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours are 3 to 10 p.m.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.