It's safe to say that Allenby, named after a street in Tel Aviv, is the only restaurant downtown that's Israeli-inspired. Co-owner and chef Michael Goldberg, who'd cooked a lot of Italian food in his life, took a trip last year to Israel, his first, to explore the cuisine.
"Growing up, all I knew of Jewish food was you go to the deli and get a pastrami sandwich and a bowl of matzo ball soup," Goldberg says. "I didn't know there was a Jewish community in Iraq or one in Yemen. I learned there's a pickled mango sauce they put on falafel — it's super-common in Israel. Turns out it comes originally from India, and Iraqi Jews were traders there and brought it back, and then they brought it to Israel. So we serve that." It's called amba.
Goldberg doesn't try to do classic Jewish dishes from the diaspora — "somebody's grandma's going to do it better," he says. Instead he takes concepts that are eaten throughout the Middle East and plays around with their Israeli versions.
One example is big plates of hummus, served as a main dish instead of a side. Goldberg says that in Israel hummus is taken so seriously that there are hummus-only restaurants, where it's served with different toppings. So he might put hummus under harissa-roasted cauliflower, or roasted eggplant, red peppers, and pine nuts, in a little lake of green olive oil. One week he used Michigan-foraged ramps with pistachio dukka (dukka being an Egyptian nuts, seeds and spices mix).
I found the Allenby hummus, served with warm puffed pita from Babylon Ethnic Foods, a bit bland — I like more garlic — but the toppings are sensational, the roasting having enhanced the flavors to the max. A higher toppings-to-hummus ratio would be appreciated.
The four stellar sandwiches showcase influences from Central Europe, Iran, Yemen, and the Lower East Side via Ireland. That last one is beef corned in house, with a Thousand Island dressing made with tahini, plus Swiss cheese on sourdough toast. I am here to testify that this luscious version of a Reuben will stand up to anything your bubbe ever assembled.
Allenby takes the American Jewish Friday night standard beef brisket and treats it to "Persian dip" — a pomegranate molasses. It's served on a perfect crisp roll, and there's plenty of sweet jus for dunking.
Then to Germany and environs for chicken schnitzel, perhaps my favorite of the lot. "European schnitzel, but in a pita. I love that concept," says Goldberg. The chicken is thick and has a flawless crisp shell of bread crumbs mixed with the Yemeni spice blend hawaij. Hawaij's ingredients are flexible, but Goldberg's includes turmeric, coriander, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, and cloves. Israeli-style pickled onions, carrots, and celery are stuffed into the pita, too, for a peaceful riot of textures.
Goldberg makes a large and messy sandwich of Yemenite falafel, which he discovered as made by Yemeni Jewish immigrants to Jerusalem. It's spiced with hawaij instead of the parsley and cilantro that sometimes turn falafel bright green. "It's Middle Eastern but with a twist you might find in Israel because of immigration," he says. The cold pitas are stuffed with warm falafels, thin carrots, pickled peppers and red cabbage (toasted pita might have been a nice touch).
Goldberg and partner Katie Nelson, both native metro Detroiters, make fantastic soups. Don't count on a regular menu; they're made from "what we have on hand," as are the hummus plates, based on what produce is seasonal. That said, I loved a thick, chunky, tomato-vegetable soup with a bright, fresh taste, and even more, a smooth and creamy carrot. The carrot soup was spicy, not sweet, except for the carrots' own natural sweetness, with just enough fire.
For weekend brunch, Goldberg serves a dish popular throughout the Middle East: shakshuka. It's a tomato and pepper stew with eggs beaten into it, with the Allenby addition of Bulgarian feta.
Allenby is one of four informal restaurants in the Fort Street Galley food court (no reservations needed), which all share a bar called Magpie. Allenby doesn't serve any drinks itself, but Magpie has some great cocktails on draft; they're $8 during happy hour 5-7 p.m. weekdays.
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