Not every dish at Cleopatra is as consistently excellent as you'll find at many Dearborn restaurants. But there are three compelling reasons to go to Cleopatra for Middle Eastern food: You want wine or beer with your dinner; you're on the east side; you seek lamb. And a fourth bonus, too: You can try out some Egyptian dishes and see how they differ from your Lebanese standbys.
Owners Sam Tobia and Farag Wassef are Egyptian, as are their cooks. They are Coptic Christians, which explains the Madonna-and-child icon on the wall, as well as the beer and wine. The affordable and drinkable wines are from California and Greece (no retsina) and the $4.50 beers are from Greece (Mythos, a lager) and Lebanon (Almaza, a pilsner).
Many Middle Eastern restaurants have all but forsaken traditional lamb for cheaper beef, but Cleopatra uses lamb even to grind up and stuff grape leaves with.
Asked why he and Tobia had opted to stick with lamb, Wassef would say only, "It tastes good," and noted that customers may specify the degree of done-ness desired. All meats are grilled, and there is some beef for those who prefer it.
The long menu includes all the familiar Middle Eastern dishes: shawarma, falafel, fattoush, tabbouleh, hummus, baba, mujadara, shishes, kaftas, plus seafood, smoothies, and raw juices. I found the smoky, creamy baba ghanoush far superior to an overly lemony hummus. My companion found his falafel too dry, and none of the soups — lentil, vegetable nor lamb "chili" — were very spicy.
But these shortcomings were made up for in other dishes. The automatically proffered toum garlic dip that starts the meal was reliably pungent and smooth. A house-made "Mediterranean salsa" of tomato and cilantro was the other welcome dip for an inexhaustible supply of perfect hollow pita rolls, hot from the arched red-brick oven that's visible to diners (Cleopatra was once a pizza place). It was hard not to fill up on this trio of goodies while waiting for the acknowledged main courses.
Of these, one of the more expensive, but well worth it, is lamb chops: lamb at its succulent best, very lightly charred without and faintly pink within.
Baked kibbeh involves sautéeing lamb and onions with spices, combining cracked wheat with whatever your recipe calls for, and then making layers of the two components and baking them casserole-style. So many comfort-food dishes are labor-intensive for the cook; this Egyptian labor of love produces a hearty, filling assemblage that's mild but somewhat piquant. It takes home well, too. (Cleopatra does an active carryout business.)
Kibbeh also comes fried, as part of a lamb combo that includes kafta, pies, and stuffed grape leaves.
Among all the familiar Middle Eastern dishes on the menu, a couple are labeled Egyptian; I haven't seen them elsewhere. I declined koshary, which involves both pasta and rice as well as lentils. Mahshi turned out to be a pepper, two zucchini, and an eggplant, each stuffed with lamb, rice, and onions, far tastier than the standard American stuffed vegetable.
Cleopatra serves special breakfasts on weekends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. One is falafel; another is a simple zaatar and olive oil on bread. We tried scrambled eggs with sojok, the Middle Eastern sausage; the spicy rounds are incorporated into a big plate of eggs.
More interesting was fool moudmas; our waitress claimed, "The Egyptians use it to keep going all day long." I loved this dish, served with a little side of olives, and thought I could detect allspice, though the menu lists only parsley, cilantro, cumin, coriander, garlic, paprika, and lemon juice. It's firm fava beans with tomatoes and onions, cooked in olive oil — simple-sounding but complex-tasting. The occasional charred onion lends a tiny touch of sweetness. It's especially good piled inside a round pita roll and is listed as just foul on the weekday appetizers menu, so you don't have to restrict it to breakfast.
I went out of my comfort zone to order a healthy drink, and regretted it. "The Cobra" consists of juice from carrots, oranges, apples, beets, and radishes; it tastes like radishes and grass. More appealing ones are available, even lemonade. You won't catch me with a "Power Mix," which repeats the radish sin along with spinach and celery.
The small Cleopatra space is decorated with King Tut figurines, far more of him than icons of the goddess-queen. The tiled counter is inlaid with scenes from the ancient tombs. You won't think you're in Lebanon.
The owners plan to open a second, larger Cleopatra at 23 Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue later this spring, with a full bar.