Ethnic food has been the backbone of the Detroit dining scene for as long as most of us can probably remember.
When we celebrate our industrial and automobile heritage, we are also celebrating the millions of workers who contributed to it working the assembly line, blast furnaces, and lathes. Most of our ancestors and distant relatives came here poor, looking for a better life: first from Europe, and more recently from Latin America and the Middle East. With them came the food and recipes from back home.
The first generations created their own restaurants, places invariably decorated with huge doses of nostalgia: walls dressed with hand-painted scenes of mountain and village life back in Italy; brass shields, hookah pipes, and scimitars from Lebanon; Aztec temples, bullfight scenes, and sombreros and serapes from Mexico.
The best places are where the old folks gather, where there’s often on site an aunt or a grandmother who supervises the kitchen, tearing her hair out because the younger generation doesn’t understand how to make the dishes correctly. Everyone loves her and the tradition she protects, even as changes begin to slightly adapt.
The second generation — the ones who inherit the restaurants — often redefine the food somewhat, “upscaling” both the dishes and the environment in which they are served.
Our choice of restaurant this month exemplifies much of this trajectory. Mandaloun Bistro in Bingham Farms has a sleek and melded interior, and a comfortable feel dressed up with nice linens, fine glassware, beautiful table settings, and a complete and smart wine list. The decor is sleek and modern, a muted gray and white color scheme, and matched by gray mottled marble floor, slinky silver curtains, plush black high-back leather dining chairs, and gray and black table settings with fine glassware.
The name comes from the long, tall windows with rounded tops and opaque glass that are believed to have originated in Lebanon and imported into architectural designs in large homes in Europe in the 1700s.
Mandaloun Bistro, which also has entertainment on weekends, is impressive and boasts a sophisticated Middle Eastern menu on which much is familiar, but slight culinary twists signal the homage to the Old World with decidedly New World influences.
The menu is upscale, and some of the best Lebanese food I’ve had in our metropolitan area in years. In both style and quality, Mandaloun Bistro takes a seat alongside Sameer and Samy Eid’s Phoenicia, the area’s longtime temple of fine Lebanese dining.
On my first visit I was bowled over by a first course of kibbe nayeh, the raw lamb equivalent of steak tartare, which I have loved and eaten for years. Madaloun’s version was smoother and gentler than usual, but without any loss of either flavor or the gentle perkiness that makes it tasty. The lamb was still lightly prevalent, but the bulgur wheat, a key ingredient, more restrained, and the spicing was in perfect balance.
Mandaloun Bistro is owned and managed by Melissa Bitar, who works the front desk, while her parents, Malake and Fernand Bitar, work the kitchen. Malake is the executive chef. The couple have owned other restaurants around Detroit for years.
“A lot of places make what they say is Lebanese food,” says Melissa. “But … how can I say this carefully? They downscale it and give us a bad reputation. Our purpose here is to show the real way to make Lebanese, to show people how we really eat.”
The parents came here in 1994 from Lebanon and launched their own smaller, simpler restaurants. Daughter Melissa has moved them into this new realm, with her parents’ blessing.
“My mother and I decorated the place ourselves,” Melissa says. “It’s a continuing project.”
Mandaloun is located in the spot that was home to Shiraz. Its sister restaurant was the original Morels: Back then, it was a huge, meandering place that occupied one side of the ground floor and wrapped around an enclosed atrium.
The next step, Melissa says, will be an expansion into the old Morels space. They plan to triple the total space and give them a combination banquet area and space to handle weddings.
The current menu is extensive. The main plates at first are not discernably different than other full-service Lebanese places: lamb chops, shish kabob (marinated and grilled beef,) shish tawook (chicken), shish kafta (ground lamb and beef), and a usual grouping of shawarmas (marinated meats served with a creamy garlic sauce).
But on the plate, they are strikingly different and more complex.
“Dad butchers all the meat, and Mom cooks everything,” Melissa says. “These dishes are from recipes that have come down from my great-great-great grandmother a hundred and fifty years ago. This is how we eat, and so it is very different.”
Not to be missed dish is the Bitar specialty: lamb shank stewed in okra, little couscous balls, onion, chickpeas, and chicken broth.
The menu also has a good run of popular Arabic items such as hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush.
But to me, the real departure is in the list of light first-course offerings, two or three of which could easily make a meal.
I loved the hindbi — simple, sparky dandelion greens pan-cooked in olive oil, lemon, and a fried onion — as well as the shanklish — a salad of fresh, spiced cheese, diced tomatoes, and onion tossed in olive oil and a dash of lemon.
Also highly recommended are the sliced lamb tongues, which are cooked ahead and then sautéed in olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. It is absolutely delicious.
Everything on the menu, right down to the desserts, are intricately and carefully done at Mandaloun Bistro. One that I just adored is the baklava, multilayered and delicate in mille-feuille pastry of nuts and honey. Too often baklava is gooey and overly sweet. Bitar’s version is dense and slightly crunchy — and devoid of that over-sweetness.
We also loved a dessert called ashta, made of clotted cream pudding garnished with banana slices and almonds.
The overall takeaway from Mandaloun Bistro is that this a very skilled and carefully done menu addressed in a kitchen that clearly has many years of experience and some very talented hands.
30100 Telegraph Rd., Bingham Farms; 248-723-7960. L Mon.-Fri., D daily.