Victor Ansara, left, son Michael Ansara and other family members remodeled and rethought the former La Shish in Farmington Hills. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
Despite the number of Middle Eastern restaurants scattered throughout the metro area, when the La Shish restaurant empire crashed and burned, it left an unhappy group of diners looking for replacements for its shawarma, fattoush salad and shish kafta.
Three former La Shish locations -- in Clinton Township, Auburn Hills and Ann Arbor -- were snapped up by Palm Palace. Stepping forward to claim the Farmington Hills spot was a savvy group of restaurateurs, the Ansara family -- Victor, Norman, Andrew and Lew, three brothers and a cousin -- who already operated a number of Red Robin and Big Boy restaurants in the area.
Instead of adding another of these to their roster, they came up with a new concept called 2Booli, a play on the name of the fresh parsley, mint, bulgur wheat, tomato and onion salad that is a staple in Middle Eastern cooking.
They completely remodeled the space, doing away with the fanciful pierced brass-and-beads decor and keeping only the bread oven in the room, to give a slick contemporary look to the big airy space that seats 136.
Despite the family's Lebanese heritage, they also expanded the menu to include some Italian, Greek and American dishes, including spaghetti and meatballs, chicken wings, minestrone and polenta, although the thrust is toward the fare of their roots, much of it from Ansara family recipes.
The new approach is working well. 2Booli, subtitled Fresh Mediterranean Eats, is able to attract a broader audience than if it were strictly Middle Eastern in scope. In my visit, however, I concentrated on the Lebanese dishes.
One test is the lentil soup. Both crushed and whole varieties here are made with yellow lentils and lemon, but they are completely different soups: The crushed is very finely pureed and spiced with coriander, allspice and cumin that gives it a slight kick, while the whole is heartier and includes Swiss chard and potatoes.
Shish kafta, meat pies and kibbee are made with beef rather than lamb, something of a disappointment to traditionalists, but lamb does turn up in braised shank, chops (the highest-priced dish at $23.95) and in tender chunks, cooked to specified degree of doneness.
Almost everything comes with rice pilaf, while chicken dishes -- from the classic marinated and deboned half chicken, to shawarma and tawook -- arrive with a garlic spread made from fresh garlic, olive oil and a bit of jalapeno pepper. Salads, such as the fattoush, are pristinely fresh.
Baskets of puffy rounds of hot pita bread, right from the oven that's visible at the back of the dining room, are regularly replenished. Also toward the back of the room is a full bar that is an addition since the La Shish days.
Service of the nicely plated dishes is friendly and accommodating, and shows the expertise involved in 2Booli.
The family's background in chain-style restaurants also shows here, especially in the menu wordage, which tends to be over the top. A case in point is this description of stuffed mushrooms: "This fleet of grande funghi embarks on a Mediterranean pleasure cruise with a delectable cargo of fennel sausage. ..." It's just not necessary.
But that's a minor complaint. 2Booli, as its name might suggest, has all the earmarks of a prototype, and it is. The Ansaras are looking for locations to expand the brand.