If an Arabic mom knew their kid was paying $14 for fattoush, she’d slap them,” said my friend as we perused the menu recently at Leila in Detroit’s Capitol Park.
At first glance, the menu at this Lebanese restaurant looks like a typical menu from any Middle Eastern restaurant you’d find around metro Detroit. Staples like hummus, baba ghanouj, and shish tawook are all represented, but so are some modern twists.
And next to the dishes are price tags that would likely give my friend’s mom pause: $14 for the aforementioned fattoush, $11 for labneh, and $21 for mjaddara. My friend explained that these were all things Lebanese people cook at home regularly and for much cheaper; coincidentally, she had just made mjaddara the day before (she posted a poll on her Instagram story: “Hits the spot or peasant food?” If you want to know, most of her friends said “hits the spot”). So the question is: Why come to a place like Leila?
Nobody goes to a restaurant like Leila just to eat. People go for the experience, and if there’s one thing the Eid family — who established the fine-dining Birmingham institution Phoenicia 50 years ago — does well, it’s deliver on the promise of a good time.
Given the occupancy the times I dined there, it’s clear that people are more than happy to spend the extra money. On one occasion, I arrived at 5 p.m. without a reservation and was told their tables were all booked up, but they said I could grab a table on the patio, which gave me a front-row seat to the Capitol Park action.
While my friend’s mother might be skeptical, a different mother is the inspiration for Leila. The restaurant is named after proprietor Samy Eid’s own mother, whose skill at turning traditional Lebanese flavors into tantalizing meals forms the basis of the food at Leila.
A photo of her — she’s clad in a chic black outfit with a matching scarf, her makeup fit for a Hollywood star, while frying falafel — comes with your bill, and you can see Leila the restaurant is a physical manifestation of Leila the woman: sophisticated and stylish as well as warm and welcoming.
The restaurant occupies two levels in the Farwell Building. Named after real estate and shipping magnate Jesse Farwell, the building opened on Capitol Park in 1915.
Featuring elaborate ironwork and an interior design done entirely by Louis Comfort Tiffany, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Less than 10 years later, it was shuttered, left vacant until 2019 when Leila opened. It’s a part of the revitalization of Capitol Park, where several restaurants, boutiques, and other businesses have set up shop in the past few years.
Saroki Architecture is behind Leila’s modern-meets-history design. At the heart of the ground level is the expansive bar, an open kitchen that offers a glimpse into the action, and a stunning floor-to-ceiling steel and glass wine cellar.
Raw materials such as steel, brick, glass, and stone give the restaurant a modern feel, while the custom- designed mosaic tile pattern on the bar floor and the signature pink flower pattern seen throughout pay homage to Middle Eastern culture.
The Eids moved to the U.S. more than 60 years ago from Lebanon, and nearly every week since then, their family and friends have gathered at their house to share stories over a vast Lebanese spread. If you can’t get an invite to their house, the next best thing is having dinner at Leila.
For starters, the cold and hot meze menu spans two pages. This is where you choose your adventure. You could go to Leila and just order cocktails and a bunch of meze to share and have an excellent meal.
We tried the Kibbeh Niyee and fattoush. The kibbeh, presented simply with a thin layer of raw lamb accentuated by mint leaves, was fresh and delicate, balanced out with a punch of spice from jalapeno. The pita chips made the fattoush, with the perfectly crunchy bits still intact despite a generous dunking of sumac-forward dressing on the lettuce.
On the hot side, we got the confit garlic, Haloumi, and batata harra, dishes that aren’t as commonly found on other Lebanese menus. The confit garlic was like savory butter, and it should be bottled and sold because it would go with anything. The fried Haloumi is balanced out with fresh watermelon. The batata harra is better than any french fry. Fluffy, pillowy rounds of pita bread that is made in-house provide a vehicle to sop everything up.
You could stop here and be full, but the inspiration here is a Lebanese Sunday feast after all, and you won’t want to miss out on the entrees, which are a little less traditional. The branzino is perfectly cooked, with skin as crisp as a new dollar bill while the filet is tender, flaky, and well seasoned. It pairs nicely with a savory ragout-like side of chickpea, tomato, and jalapeno — with an unapologetic amount of whole garlic cloves.
The dry-aged rib-eye, which comes out in fanned-out slices, is complemented with Lebanese Zip-style sauce (pomegranate molasses gives it that Lebanese spin). The dish has a minimal presentation, just steak and a cup of the Zip sauce, but the ingredients speak for themselves. The ribs, dry rubbed and broiled, are a Phoenicia staple, which I had several years ago and still dream about.
The desserts were hit or miss. The Lebanese Sundae was a delight, a childhood favorite all grown up. Ashta, the Lebanese clotted cream, is transformed into a luxurious and creamy ice cream, laced with the perfect amount of rose water so it wasn’t overwhelmingly perfumy.
Sugary clouds of fairy floss — i.e., cotton candy — and crunchy pistachios made this a fun ending to the meal. On another occasion we had the baklava cigars and chocolate tart. The baklava was delicious, although I personally prefer the dessert to have a little bit more syrup.
The tart had a za’atar caramel, which is a brilliant idea and a fresh spin on the overexposed salted caramel, but it was as if the lid of the spice jar had fallen off because all we could taste was za’atar. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll love this dessert. However, we thought it overpowered the silky- smooth chocolate ganache, which was divine.
The cocktails, all Lebanese takes on classic libations like the gimlet, margarita, and daiquiri,add to the big night-on-the-town energy. The Anne Hathaway — named after the wife of William Shakespeare, as our server told us, not the actress — is the perfect patio sipper, with vodka, elderflower, cucumber, mint, lime juice, and rose flower.
There’s also a brief menu of the Lebanese spirit arak, which is distilled from grapes and anise seeds. It’s served tableside with water poured into your glass, turning the mixture cloudy. It’s the perfect segue from meze to entrees, but it also goes well with the meat entrees.
Much like how Phoenicia raised the bar on Lebanese fine dining in metro Detroit, Leila elevates Lebanese food but in a more casual setting than the white-tablecloth Birmingham institution. They say Leila is the sister restaurant, but I like to think of Leila as the daughter who grew up looking up to her mother, soaked up all of her knowledge, and went out and did her own thing — but just as fabulous.
As we sat back on the comfortable couches on the patio with cocktails in hand, my friend said it was the type of place she’d take someone from out of town or for a special occasion. Many others had the same idea: I saw countless tables of families, girlfriends, and couples celebrating birthdays (I even ran into a friend who had taken her mother there to honor another trip around the sun).
I was celebrating a special occasion of my own — an exciting new job opportunity. And every special occasion calls for food.
This story is from the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.