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Review: Ishtar does it the ‘the Iraqi way’ in Sterling Heights

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In Detroit, Middle Eastern food is often equated with Lebanese or "Mediterranean" fare. But the region's cuisine is not a monolithic block. Think of the type of food you might find in Arizona compared with what's in Maine. It's all "American," but there are no lobsters in the desert.

In fact, it's not difficult to find the nuances of Middle Eastern cuisine in Detroit. There's excellent Aleppian food at Dearborn's Al-Chabab, Yemeni restaurants throughout Hamtramck and Southwest Detroit, Egyptian dishes in Hamtramck and and at Troy's LoLo Potluck, Persian food at Rumi, Syrian fare at Exotic Syrian Deli in Ann Arbor, and much more.

There's also Sterling Heights' Ishtar, which is billed as a Mediterranean restaurant, but is really Iraqi. It's one of the few in Detroit representing that nation (the awesome Sullaf on Seven Mile is another), which is a little surprising given the area's relatively large Chaldean population.

One of the first things one notices in Ishtar — aside from the incredible turquoise, bronze, and gold murals and reproductions of ancient artwork on the walls — are the gargantuan shawarma spits twirling in one part of its kitchen. Ishtar claims its shawarma is "famous," and if the volume it's shaving requires spits of this magnitude, then it's doing something right. But chicken and lamb shawarma also makes its way into a lot of the restaurant's dishes.

For example, the shawarma tashreeb is a humongous bowl lined with tanour bread that holds acidic tomato sauce and vegetables under a thick blanket of moist and flavorful lamb shawarma shavings, served aside a bowl of basmati rice. The word "tashreeb" translates into "to soak," and it's not hard to see why the dish is named such as it approaches stew territory. Sham quzi is a nearly bowling ball-sized package of soft, slightly chewy dough encasing shreds of chicken and lamb shawarma, basmati rice, raisins, carrots, onions, and peas. The package also holds heavy whiffs of cardamom and cinnamon, and could be thought of as an Iraqi calzone — it's a fine comfort food for this year's endless cold and damp weather.

One can also take the chicken shawarma straight up on the chicken shawarma plate, which arrives with big, moist, wood chip-sized shavings and a bit of rice. Like most dishes at Ishtar, the portion is big enough for two. Quzi is considered a national dish, and Ishtar's version is a jumble of lamb bones, cooked "the Iraqi way," which I take to mean "slow-cooked," given how the tender meat falls from the bone.

Arguably the most incredible bites of my visits belong to the Iraqi chicken tikka, also done "the Iraqi way." It's a cousin to shish tawook, but there are some variations. Ishtar serves big pieces of moist bird that are slightly charred from a stay on the grill. Each piece is marinated in lemon and garlic and slightly orange from a coating of what I suspect is turmeric and other spices. The generous portion arrives on a platter with slightly charred, sumac-dusted white onion, sprigs of fresh basil, grilled jalapeño, grilled and charred tomatoes, and other veggies. The only slight disappointment was the shawarma pizza. It wasn't particularly bad, but could've used more toppings and better cheese.

Ishtar's tanour bread is a foundation of many of its plates. The flatbread is common in Iraq and Syria, and is prepared in a clay, vertical tanour oven. It's slightly thick for a "flatbread," but still perfect for dipping, wrapping, and grabbing.

Ishtar's sides are standard, though the "cabbage salad" is actually coleslaw like you'll find at Denny's. However, the restaurant prepares a solid Iraqi salad, fattoush, and other familiar plates. Each entree comes with a bowl of soup, and there are few lemon chicken rice recipes in metro Detroit that can stand next to Ishtar's. The sour, yellow soup is thick and super flavorful.

Ishtar doesn't serve alcohol, but the beverage menu offers a large selection of fresh smoothies. If your party is celebrating a birthday, then you'll want to inform the waitstaff, as the Iraqi EDM birthday song that Ishtar cranks and the fireworks coming out of the dessert are a wonderful birthday surprise.

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