May 24, 2012 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham

A hidden gem of Lebanese delight

Farmington Hills' Le Chef a cut above in Middle Eastern cuisine

The kitchen at Le Chef is under the direction of Malake Bitar, who offers a subtle, understated take on Lebanese favorites. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Occasionally a restaurant turns out to be a real surprise, delivering much more than expected. Last year, The Silver Spoon in Rochester Hills was exactly that, an elegant spot tucked behind the façade of a shopping plaza offering top-notch Italian fare. This year, it's Le Chef in Farmington Hills and its Lebanese dishes, in a similar low-key setting.

And what makes Le Chef doubly surprising is that it's been around for a little more than two years, thriving on word of mouth but not well-known outside the neighborhood.

Invisible from the street — you have to drive into a Home Depot shopping plaza in order to spot it — when the door opens it reveals an almost formal setting, a handsomely appointed room with carefully chosen furnishings and decorative accents, linen-covered tables, soft lighting and soft background music. A patio, visible through big windows, offers diners an outdoor seating area under umbrellas and sheltered by evergreens twined with tiny white lights.

But Le Chef isn't just a pretty face. The well-prepared fare from the kitchen headed by Malake Bitar, the matriarch of the family, who adheres to her own recipes from northern Lebanon, lives up to the elegant setting and then surpasses it.

It's some of the best Lebanese food around, and that says something in an area that boasts dozens of good Mideastern restaurants.

The chef's talents are backed up by her family: husband Fernand, son Edward and daughter Melissa.

While the menu includes many familiar dishes, as well as some that aren't, it is the execution of those dishes that makes this place special.

Hummus is a good case in point. A version of it can be found everywhere, even at the supermarket. Bitar's hummus is silky and subtle — and those adjectives may be applied to many of her dishes, from smoky baba ghanoush to stuffed grape leaves with yogurt sauce.

Among dishes that will surprise is the delicate chicken kafta, made with ground white meat. I was expecting an assertive spiciness, but the dish, and the garlic sauce that accompanied it, were subtle and understated. Another is lamb tongue sauteed in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. Don't shy away — it's tender and delicious, as is the house-made sausage prepared in a similar fashion.

Both lunch and dinner entrees come with two sides to be chosen from a list that includes several options beyond the expected rice or fries, allowing diners to customize their plates. Choices include charbroiled or steamed vegetables, sauteed mushrooms, an array of turnip and wild cucumber pickles, feta cheese and tahini (sesame seed) sauce.

Although the soup or salad that comes with dinner entrees is not included with lunch, both are offered on the list of sides at lunch.

Everything is prettily served to formally set tables with comfortable high-backed, dark brown leather chairs at each place. The addition of a liquor license three months ago and the carefully chosen wine list with several sturdy red wines and a couple of whites from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley certainly add to the appeal.

A destination restaurant in a Home Depot plaza. Why not?

Le Chef Lebanese Cuisine

32621 Northwestern Hwy., Farmington Hills

Call: (248) 932-1300

Web: www.lechefmi.com

Rating: 3 stars

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., noon-11 p.m. Sat., noon-9 p.m. Sun.

Prices: Appetizers $8-$14, most sharable; soups and salads $4-$8; lunch combos $10-$15; house specialties and dinner entrees $15-$27, including soup or salad and two sides; desserts $5

Credit cards: All major

Liquor: Full bar (but no bar seating)

Parking: Attached lot

Wheelchair access: No barriers

abraham67@comcast.net

(313) 222-1475

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