Nathan Wood: Mediterranean-inspired sides outshine entrées at La Marsa

By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published April 11, 2013

I love Mediterranean food: It’s savory, generously herbed and spiced, healthy and well-balanced, satisfying, full of texture combinations and such a welcomed departure from the ordinary fare I repeatedly find myself consuming. For the absolute best, I go to Hamido in Dearborn. Yes, it can be a one-hour drive each way in rush-hour traffic, but the food is so irresistible and my cravings so strong that it’s usually worth it.

But sometimes my car is covered in snow and I don’t feel like brushing it off, or the roads are bad, or I have an exam the next day, or my friends are being lame, or, or, or ... and for times like these, there’s La Marsa.

For me, the restaurant is a mere 10-minute walk from my college home, just up to where Liberty Street dead-ends onto State Street. I often find myself there for lunch after my Friday morning classes or a relaxing Sunday evening dinner, but this place is great no matter the occasion.

Inside, the space is narrow but deep with a prominent curving counter/bar ushering you from the front of the restaurant back to your booth. You are greeted by a friendly waitstaff, a couple of iced waters and a sizeable menu bound in a thick, black padfolio. The artwork on the walls is inspired by the places from which the dishes on the menu originate and — just like the food — is lush, colorful and inviting.

Before you know it, a basket of pita and a plate of an almost unnaturally colorless paste are set before you. The bread here is unlike any pita I’ve ever had — it’s kind of like a baby-sized pita pillow. The crusty brown exterior of the bread is easily punctured, quickly giving way to the soft, airy wisps of steaming-leavened dough cradled inside. And for dipping, the bleached-white toum (Lebanese garlic sauce) is intensely pungent, luscious and addictive. Who knew the simple combination of raw garlic, fresh lemon juice, vegetable oil and salt could be so delicious?

If you’ve ordered a dinner, a homemade soup or salad promptly follows. The lamb chili is an excellent choice among the soups, with a slightly gamey flavor, sweet background notes and complex seasoning profile. It’s hearty and thick with plenty of supple ground lamb. More interesting than a beef chili and somewhat of a rarity, this is definitely worth trying once. The lamb vegetable soup is also a fun and tasty pick, but somewhat watery and admittedly not as special.

And if you’re feeling more like a salad, the fattoush — whose appeal lies in its simplicity — is my top choice. Made with crisp, fresh and crunchy romaine, radicchio and cucumber, good cuts of bright red tomato and a verdant, tangy dressing, the pervasiveness of the flavor/texture combination in this salad overwhelms your taste buds. I have a hard time passing up this classic whenever dining here.

The appetizer standouts include falafel, baba ghanooj and anything with hommous. The falafel have a bright herbal flavor, and the minty green color inside reveals the sweet fava beans used to craft the deep-fried balls. Crunchy and well-browned on the outside, warm and grainy on the inside, these treats are a perfect starter when paired with the tahini sauce and accompanying tomatoes and pickles. The baba ghanooj is unsurprising but typically pleasing, and the hommous is rock-solid quality. With a kick from the garlic, bite from the lemon and boasting a texture much smoother than what I’m ever able to achieve when I make the stuff at home (can you sense the jealousy?), this is a must-order at La Marsa.

The entrées are not disappointing, but always fail to exceed expectations; compared to all of the delicious foods offered before and alongside them, they’re outshined. Still, the chicken kafta, meat schwarma and shish tawook are a few of my favorites. As a friendly side note, whenever anything at this place offers to be flavored with lemon and oregano — this will be clearly indicated on the menu — you must accept. Opting for the heightened acidity, richness and slight bitterness afforded by the additional ingredients is a no-brainer.

But because I like the appetizers so much more than the actual main courses, if I can convince a friend or two to join me, I often opt for the Vegetarian Combo, which is basically just a collection of all of my favorites. For $24.99, you get hommous, baba ghanooj, tabbouli (which is admittedly not as good as the fattoush, but still easy on the taste buds), falafel, grape leaves, mjadra, spinach pies and French fries. Without fail, I am amazed by the mass of food every time I order the Combo. It really is an incredible value and always ensures you get to take a couple of leftovers home, which — unlike Dearborn, and luckily for us — is only a 10-minute walk away.