Today I am going to write about a restaurant I haven't yet visited - the new Ann Arbor location for La Shish, a chain of Middle Eastern restaurants that got its start in East Dearborn and is now all over the Detroit area. The new location takes over where Bill Knapp's crashed and burned on the southwest corner of Washtenaw and Carpenter, just east of the US 23 interchange. Here's the address and phone:
La Shish in Ann Arbor/Pittsfield
2370 Carpenter Rd.
Pittsfield Township, MI 48108
Writing about a new restaurant is always a risk, but in this case I think it's worth taking the chance. Recently opened restaurants are still working out their routines and getting the staff's skills and attitudes aligned with the aims of the owners, so a little forebearance may be in order. What I provide here is a reminiscence of my years at Ford when I ate in the original La Shish almost weekly.
Lebanese food is generally very healthy and fresh, so it is no accident that the La Shish standard menu opens with fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juice concoctions. The mango smoothie was always my favorite, but the vegetable juices are incredibly good too, especially the carrot juice. If you have never tasted fresh carrot juice, with its layer of calcium settling to the bottom just waiting to help strengthen your bones, you are in for a treat.
Salads - what can I say? The tabbouli, the spinach fatoosh with feta, the lamb and chicken shawarma salads, every salad I ever ate there was heavenly.
I will jump right past the appetizers, because since my last visit a few years ago mediterranean quesadillas have appeared, a concept I find rather jarring. I will say that if you ever want a great light lunch for a meeting of five to seven people, the Vegetarian Maza is a great buy, with quantities of several traditional Lebanese snacks - grape leaves, hummus, tabbouli, felafel, baba ghannooj, and those curious fuchsia colored pickled turnips, along with a bunch of snack-size vegetable spears for dipping.
My fondest memories are of the entrees at La Shish in Dearborn. I have had a love of Lebanese food since my college days in Cleveland, when I used to go with a friend to a restaurant called Middle East in the midst of the wholesale food district. Middle East was owned by his uncle, and we got the best food in the house every time we went.
One of the key differentiators between good and great Lebanese restaurants is a dish called "Kibbee Nayee", lean raw lamb ground fine, pressed into a flat layer on a plat, and served with pita, vegetable garnish and olive oil. Lamb is a delicious meat when grilled in shish-kebabs , cooked just to medium lest it get tough. Likewise, in kafta (meatballs) it is just fine. In these dishes, lamb has to be fresh to be good, since it acquires a kind of gamey taste that grows stronger every hour after it leaves the animal. Refrigeration slows down but does not stop the process. Cooked lamb is still excellent the next day, pretty good a day or two after that, then things go downhill rather quickly. The flavor problem is magnified in older lambs, which are well along the road to muttonhood by four months of age.
For perfect kibbee nayee, hours count, as does the age of the lamb. The creature must be no more than a few weeks old, still milk fed, carefully butchered no more than a few hours before the dish is served, stripped of any visible fat, and ground to order. In this condition there is no gamey taste, just an exquisite deliciousness. It was the specialty of the house at the Middle East Restaurant, and we ate it before lunch when the lamb was butchered no more than an hour before. The pita was warm and soft, the olive oil fragrant, the experience unforgettable. Dinners there were also wonderful, but nothing surpassed the kibbee nayee served at lunchtime. Kibbee nayee was often unavailable at dinnertime because the owner refused to serve it if it was not perfect.
Almost twenty years passed in which I never found another dish of kibbee nayee that measured up. Then I went to work at Ford and a friend who had emigrated from southern Lebanon introduced me to La Shish, a restaurant owned by his former engineering professor when they both were back in the home country. This was the real thing.
OK, enough about raw meat. Every entree I ever tried was good to great. Favorites from those days included shish kabob (lamb or beef, both great), shish tawook (chicken shish kabobo), and ghallabba. The latter is a stir-fry vegetable dish with other things in it - meat for the meat lovers, potato for the vegetarians. Vegans and vegetarians have a good choice of selections on the La Shish menu. The vegetarian ghallabba was always one of my favorites.
For dessert, I always got baklava and Turkish coffee, but the creme caramel was good too.