by Mel Small
La Saj, an upscale Lebanese restaurant that opened in Sterling Heights in January, joins the Lebanese Grill, Brigette's Café, Ike's, and Steve's Backroom to enhance the east side's reputation as a secular mecca for those who fancy Mediterranean cuisine. Located south of Hall Road off Schoenherr in one of the satellite strip malls that ring Lakeside Mall, La Saj takes its name from the unusual metal dome on which many of the restaurant's dishes are prepared. The saj, an upside-down wok whose temperature can reach 500 degrees, cooks ingredients quickly, sealing in the flavor and juices through its ancient flameless technique.
With genial manager Jennifer Kalski out front and Jim Catalano in the kitchen, one wonders about the ethnic bona fides of La Saj. That's where owners Sal and Alex Awada come in. They were responsible for the tasteful decorations, including chandeliers and sconces from Syria, the desert yellow ArcusStone walls that resemble quarried stone, and the deco sweep of the dramatic false ceilings. Sports enthusiasts might consider reserving the semi-private banquette in the bar, positioned in front of a huge flat-screen TV and a fireplace.
Although La Saj's cooking method is unique to this area, its menu covers the usual suspects in the Lebanese kitchen. The appetizer sampler ($23.95), which can easily satisfy four, includes a silky hummus, suitably smoky baba ghanoush, vegetarian or meat-stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbeh stuffed with meat, onions and pine nuts, falafel, labneh (house-made yogurt), a fresh but a bit drippy tabbouleh, and cheese and vegetables. Unlike many of its competitors, La Saj wisely serves the meza on separate small plates instead of a large platter where the ingredients tend to run into one another. With warm puffy pita rounds and their accompanying sharp garlic sauce, the sampler makes for a splendid start to the meal.
Mains come with soup or crisp green salad with a lemony dressing. Lentil soup is to Middle Eastern restaurants as minestrone is to their Italian cousins — and the dense, deftly seasoned lentil at La Saj is subtler than most. Even more appealing because of its unusual provenance is steak Diane soup, a thick, stew-like vegetable broth with chunks of meat.
The five ghallaba entrées on the comprehensive menu are even closer relatives of stews, with the La Saj sautée ($12.99) a savory pot full of carrots, peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and choice of meat, chicken or shrimp. More unusual are two other ghallabas, shrimp with kashkaval cheese and tomato, and the ever-daunting lamb tongue with lemon and garlic.
Mains average around $14, with lamb preparations, such as grilled lamb steak kastalata, at the high end of the price continuum. Among "La Saj Favorites" are old standbys: chicken or beef kebabs, chicken breast, grilled lamb chops and aromatic beef or lamb kafta, as well as the aforementioned kastalata and sajee, thin slices of marinated grilled beef, chicken or shrimp. The shell- and tail-less corkscrew-shaped shrimp in one sajee, which surprisingly resemble calamari, were pleasingly tender.
It is clear that Catalano takes pride in the appearance of his compositions, which appeal to the eye as well as the taste buds and nose.
As with most Middle Eastern spots, La Saj is vegetarian-friendly. One of the best bets is madjara, an earthy mélange of lentils and cracked wheat. The Awadas are also children-friendly, offering gastronomically challenged youngsters all-American chicken tenders and even hamburgers.
Many of the specialties of the house are available as small sandwiches cut into bite-sized portions, priced from $2.99 to $3.99. Among the more interesting of these are makanik, sausages made with lamb, beef and veal, the spicier sojok, a beef and lamb sausage, and arayis, which involves lamb kafta. Substantial meal-size sandwiches, which offer such fillings as salmon or fried kibbeh, make their appearance in pita roll-ups.
The small wine list, beginning at $20 for a decent Chateau St. Michelle Riesling, covers most price levels. The fact that the list is disproportionately red (including some from Lebanon) comes as no surprise, since, in general, the assertively seasoned Middle Eastern cuisine can overwhelm whites.
Most of the desserts, including the ice cream, are house-made. An imported exception, a white-chocolate raspberry cheesecake, is delectable.
The servers and their assistants are skilled and attentive, the sort who leave no water glass half-empty for very long and who are eager to assist with the doggie bags that appear to be de rigueur for most patrons.
It is difficult to say whether La Saj's cooking method produces any more distinctive shawarmas or kebabs than the open-flame grilling methods employed by other chefs. Nonetheless, Catalano's kitchen does turn out meritorious Mediterranean dishes that make an evening at La Saj one of the more interesting new dining experiences in town.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.