by Mel Small
After 16 years in a strip mall just north of 17 Mile Road on Van Dyke, Ike's Family Restaurant recently moved to a spacious new building a few blocks south of 17 Mile — and dropped "Family" from its name. There is nothing wrong with "family restaurants," but they usually suggest a lack of both culinary sophistication and a liquor license.
That is certainly not the case with Ike El-Alam's stylish new establishment, where dining areas are accented with midcentury-modern light fixtures, blond wood and marble flooring, and the kitchen produces fresh and well-prepared Middle Eastern fare of such quality as to rank it among the best in its ethnic niche. The bare tables and paper napkins belie the relative stylishness of the setting, which is especially comfortable because of the generous spacing between the tables and the banquettes. Artfully divided into several dining sections, the bustling restaurant can seat as many as 250, double the amount of the old place.
The congenial Ike, a legendary hands-on owner-chef of Lebanese extraction, is omnipresent, perpetually wandering among his patrons to make certain they are pleased with their service and meals. He's ably assisted in the kitchen by Mike Khorshid and out front by his wife Roxana, whose Central American origin is reflected in her crème-caramel dessert. Some patrons will indeed need Ike and Roxana's help with their huge menu that meanders through steaks and seafood to Italian and Greek dishes before it gets to its gastronomic raison d'être — specialties from Lebanon.
The hefty entrées, which average around $12, include soup and salad, as well as warm fluffy pita baked on the premises. You'll probably need a doggie bag by the time you get to those entrées, but you should launch the meal with a vegetarian-plate appetizer ($12.95) that serves four and overflows with hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, fattoush, grape leaves, cabbage rolls and falafel. Virtually all of those standards easily pass muster, especially the moister-than-usual falafel and the silky, slightly smoky baba ghanoush. The only mild disappointment is the bland hummus. Among the other 40 starters and salads are lamb sausage, kibbeh balls, labneeh with garlic, saganaki (opa!) and even chicken tenders and cheese sticks.
As for the comes-with soup that might be mushroom or lentil, the more complex mushroom, full of bits of vegetables and assertive seasoning, is a surprising choice over the watery lentil, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. Since you may have already sampled tabbouleh and fattoush with your appetizers, ask for the Lebanese salad for a bit of variety with the entrée. However, its tangy lemony dressing appears to be the same dressing used in fattoush, with the chief difference being its lack of toasted pita chips and onions.
One of the more unusual entrées is Sheik El Muhshi, an aromatic, stew-like mélange of eggplant, ground lamb, onions and pine nuts floating in a gentle sauce composed of fresh tomatoes, garlic and onions. The tomato sauce that serves as a base for the satisfying sautéed lamb pieces and green-bean preparation is somewhat simpler. A special treat for the adventurous is kibbee nayeh, a cousin of steak tartar; in this case the raw meat is very lean minced lamb.
If those mains sound too exotic, you can always opt for an old standby, such as the especially tender and moist chicken-shawarma accompanied by hummus, pickled turnips and a zingy garlic dip. Most of the entrées come with an ample helping of vermicelli-enlivened rice doused with tomato sauce.
Various kebabs, kibbeh, grape leaves and gyro platter are among other Lebanese entrées. For a few dollars more, combination plates — such as kafta kebobs and kibbeh balls or shish kebab and stuffed cabbage — offer the opportunity to sample two house specialties in one order.
Beyond the Levant, the huge chunk of Greek spinach pie compares favorably with those created on Monroe Street, while the ultra-thin grilled Canadian pork chops are not the least bit chewy. Ike himself touts his fish and chips.
His reasonable pricing policy carries over to his list of serviceable wines with a bottle of Cristalino Champagne going for $18, a decent Chianti for $20, and New Zealand's Nobilo sauvignon blanc for $22. And a bottle of Heineken costs only $3.
Most desserts, which include a variety of cakes, pies and baklava, are made in-house, with the Oreo cookie pie a longtime favorite. Those who fancy Turkish coffee will find Ike's variation rich and not too strong. And instead of the expected demitasse cupful, he presents three times that amount for the startling price of $2.25.
One wonders whether Ike will be able to maintain the quality, price structure and his intimate personal involvement in all aspects of the expanded operation, which also entails catering and banquet facilities. For the time being, he seems to be managing quite well as Ike's transitions from a neighborhood "family" eatery to a more sophisticated restaurant meriting a drive from most anywhere in our metroplex. The kids, of course, are still welcome.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.