Michael and I showed up for the first time at La Zamaan the day after the glowing Bix Engels review appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer in early December. Upon reading Bix’s tales of the freshest, most authentic Middle Eastern food around, we knew there was only one thing we could do: head to La Zamaan and stuff ourselves. While I’ve found that some reviews in the Observer are a bit more charitable than are warranted, I am here to confirm that the La Zamaan review is well-deserved; Ann Arborites, you no longer need to schlep to Dearborn for your Middle Eastern fix.
For the sake of contrast, let me tell you what La Zamaan is not. There is a Middle Eastern restaurant on South University, just a three minute walk from my office, whose spinach-halloumi salad I fell in love with a while ago. Really fresh, really delicious, and topped with a house-made vinaigrette of lemon juice, oregano, sumac and olive oil. I was a regular for a few months, until one day I went in and ordered the spinach-halloumi salad and they quietly substituted feta for halloumi. An honest mistake, I thought. The next time I went, my spinach-halloumi salad appeared with feta again. When I asked the cook about it, instead of giving me what I ordered, asked, “What’s wrong, you don’t like feta?” When I tried to explain that my relative affection for feta was beside the point, he scoffed, and said that most people like feta better than halloumi.
I can’t imagine this scene repeating itself at La Zamaan, on South State Street, in the space formerly occupied by Pilar’s Cafe. It’s halfway between the Produce Station and Howard Cooper. Its culinary location, however, is closer to Beirut. Ali Hijazi, the restaurant’s owner, tells us that he is eager to create an authentic experience for his customers — providing a robust menu of standard Middle Eastern fare, supplemented with fresh, seasonal delicacies that will be available on a limited basis. It’s a recipe that seems to be proving successful so far.
On that first visit, we were greeted by a buzzing crowd of curious lunchtime customers, a harried chef, an even more harried waiter, phones ringing with take-out orders, and heavenly aromas from the kitchen. There are only about 8 tables in the place, and we were lucky to grab a small table for two. Our first two choices for appetizers, spinach pies and kibbeh, were sold out — the kitchen couldn’t keep up with demand, spurred by the Observer review. They had just hired two more employees to help out in the kitchen, one of whom was happy to pose for us when we came back on a quieter night (right).
Admittedly, the decor isn’t much to look at, and every time the doors open — which is quite frequent — the cold Michigan air disrupts any Mediterranean reveries you may indulge in. Nonetheless, this restaurant is warm and inviting — it’s the kind of place you want to tell your friends about, your neighbors, your co-workers. The kind of place that is inspiring a bit of cult-ish loyalty — maybe even a bit of an addiction. Witness G3 guest-blogger Eric’s account of a recent visit:
On my way there, the two cars driving in front of me, turned into the parking lot. I looked in the rear view mirror to see if the cars behind me were going there too. I got out of my car, and there was a guy getting into his car and he said to me, are you going in there to eat? And I responded, yeah, why? Did you eat all the food? And he said, no, just be careful, the food’s so good you might not want to leave. Ever. And then he laughed a crazed and diabolical laugh. Thanks for the invite to dinner, but I’m not going to be able to make it. The bottom line is I can’t wait until tomorrow or Wednesday to go back.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what accounts for such devotion among the customers, but I’m happy to keep pursuing the elusive formula. I’ve tasted pretty widely during my visits and takeout adventures: hummus, falafel, baba ghannouj, fattoush salad, grape leaves, stuffed cabbage stuffed baby squash (special dishes, not on the menu), chicken tawook, kibbeh, and my hands-down favorite, karnabeet. The house specialty, karnabeet is the most transcendent cauliflower dish I’ve ever tasted. Lightly fried till golden brown, drizzled with tahini sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds . . . I want some now.
Simply put, the food is done really well, the portions are generous, and the dishes are reasonably priced. We really love the combo for two — which includes 2 tawook, 1 kefta, 6 falafels, hummus, roasted red peppers, fattoush, and rice — for about 23 dollars. I’m not sure what they’re doing to their rice, besides adding vermicelli and butter, but it is fluffy and light and surprisingly standout. The portions are generous enough that two people will likely take home some of this platter in to-go boxes. I ordered the “Pita Combo” for delivery at lunch one day — (pita bread with falafel, hummus, baba, and mujuddarah, along with garlic sauce and tahini sauce), which was so abundant that I got 2.5 lunches out of it. Despite the glut, save room for dessert — baklava from Shatila bakery.
Finally, two caveats: The first two times we had the tawook, it was accompanied by grilled tomatoes and onions. The most recent time, the tomatoes were not grilled, which was a shame, considering they are so out of season right now. I would heartily recommend that the restaurant put off serving anemic tomatoes altogether. The pita bread is also a disappointment — the standard fare that is typically sourced from New Yasmeen bakery in Dearborn. Though Ali mentioned the other night that they’re interested in trying to make their own bread in-house. I’m looking forward to that and other innovations coming out of the kitchen at La Zamaan; although I’d be perfectly happy if things there don’t change much at all.
2285 S. State St.
Mon-Sat 10:30am – 9:00pm
Sun 12:00pm – 4:00pm
Dine-in, carry-out, delivery (limited area/$20 minimum)