When I was growing up, a Syrian lady who lived across the street used to bring us home-cooked food. A thoroughly American kid, I turned up my nose at the stuffed grape leaves and other strange things. Nobody has ever claimed St. Clair Shores isn’t provincial.
But for almost forty years now, Middle Eastern cuisine has been my favorite. And eating at La Marsa, which opened in August in Cosi’s old place on State (just as a fire gutted my former mainstay, Sheesh), I feel I have finally honored the memory of my old neighbor. Her generous spirit seems to pervade the place.
Not only is the food uniformly hearty and homey, but the care with which the dishes at La Marsa are prepared and presented is rare for a restaurant of any price–and the value here is outstanding. For $29.99, for example, the Mixed Maza–so many appetizers the waiter had to make two trips to bring them all–was enough to satisfy four adults. Each of these small plates bespoke full attention to detail: smooth, creamy hummus, one dish plain and another loaded with chunks of juicy seared lamb; exceptional baba ghanoush with a welcome spicy kick; inspiringly spiced fried kibbeh balls; savory falafel, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside; grape leaves that tasted freshly picked, not old and oily; meat pies wrapped in soft, almost dumpling-like dough; fresh tabbouleh and fattoush salads.
It’s a good sign when entrees take time to arrive: no microwaving of pre-made dishes here. The headline news at this restaurant owned by a Tunisian and an Egyptian is the fare influenced by their heritages. Koshary, a traditional Egyptian dish of lentils, pasta, and rice, is something new in town; its simplicity appeals, but order it at least medium spiced–otherwise it’s a bit bland. Another Mediterranean combo, lamb and lima beans, makes a rich and distinctive entree.
Throughout the menu, the chefs have a free hand with spices, yielding not only that remarkable baba but also a very zesty group of main courses, including shrimp scampi. While ordering seafood at some Middle Eastern restaurants can be an adventure, La Marsa’s shrimp and salmon dishes are consistently good.
Those schooled in Middle Eastern cuisine via the now-defunct Detroit area La Shish chain (a group that must include a fair number of U-M students) will find plenty of familiar and popular items: shish tawook (the chicken in tender large chunks, the vegetables cooked to a not-too-firm, not-too-flaccid consistency); mjadara (lentils simmered with onions); shish kebab; ghallaba (a hearty stew with many choices of proteins and seasonings); and chicken livers cooked long and low with onions. Though La Shish, Sheesh, and Palm Palace all have their own versions, this was by far the best I’ve had–it made me wish my diet could still regularly include liver. The “David basha”–substantial, spicy meatballs with a plate of sauteed veggies–is also terrific. Vegetarians will find plenty of dishes to graze on here, including a surprisingly pungent tomato kibbeh. The soups, whether made with lamb, vegetables, or lentils, are all outstanding. The fresh orbs of bread to use as pockets for the hummus, baba, and tabbouleh are freshly baked in what appears to be Cosi’s old oven, only slightly modified.
My only quibble is that the tabbouleh, surprisingly, isn’t as garlicky as I would have liked; it was heavier on the parsley and mint and slightly on the bland side. I would rank it just a tad below top-notch. Still, it’s commendable that La Marsa is offering a variety of spiciness levels for the discerning palate. Even the desserts are uniquely spiced, including rice pudding and the Egyptian treat omo ali, which is kind of like a bread pudding.
The long, narrow space with a kitchen along one wall and the open entrance area with some tables by the street windows is unchanged since Cosi, but the walls have been adorned with Middle Eastern art. The service is as exceptional and personable as the food.
La Marsa is the new face in a town that has only slowly and belatedly warmed to a succession of Middle Eastern restaurants, but it is setting new standards for reliability and innovation. And with sandwiches under $5, it beats Cosi’s price for a quick campus lunch.
La Marsa, 301 S. State. 622-0200.
Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Appetizers $4.99-$29.99, soups $2.99-$3.99, salads $3.99-$11.99, entrees $10.99-$23.99, sandwiches $4.29-$4.99, sides $1-$3.99, desserts $1.99-$3.99.