Six years ago, Ali Kanaan took a buyout from Ford Motor Company and moved from Michigan to South Florida. Lucky for us, he used the cash to open Kabobji, which I believe is South Florida's best Middle Eastern restaurant.
I'm biased. For 10 years, I lived in Michigan, where more Arab-Americans live than anywhere else in the country. Long before hummus was sold in every supermarket, Metro Detroiters with no relationship to the Middle East were eating such exotic fare as kibbe, fattoush and shish tawouk.
Kanaan, born and raised in suburban Detroit to Lebanese-born parents, worked through middle and high school at one of my favorite restaurants. I didn't know him then, but it's no wonder I felt such a strong affinity to Kabobji from my first meal to my last. I knew it when I bit into a shish tawouk wrap ($8.99), marinated chicken in pita that is ever so lightly pressed. Along with the chicken is a pungent garlic sauce that is so creamy you'd swear you were eating mayonnaise. It doesn't contain a single egg. Tucked inside the pita are slices of pickle. I can't tell you how this took me back to the Motor City. My Proust moment.
In my mind, Lebanese is the most refined Middle Eastern cuisine, influenced as it was by the Turks, Persians, Greeks and French. Take a bite of creme caramel ($4.99) at Kabobji, with its sweet, dark, golden layer of caramel, and you'll understand the French reference.
But start with the veggie mezze ($17.99) platter if you want to understand the inherent healthfulness of Lebanese food. There's hummus with a hint of lemon and garlic, but never too much of either. Baba ghanoush has the smoky flavor I look for when eggplant is broiled over an open flame. Tabbouleh is truly a parsley salad, with bulgur a co-star instead of the main player. Falafel are oversize and crisp, and I can tell that the grape leaves were rolled slightly imperfectly in-house.
The other night, we split a fattoush salad ($5.99 small/$7.99 large): romaine lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, cucumbers, red and green bell peppers and sumac, the slightly sour herb you find in many dishes here. The best ingredients, however, are the crunchy pieces of fried pita bread.
Kebobs are, of course, wonderful at Kabobji. I am a big fan of the kafta kebob, seasoned ground beef ($17.99) or ground lamb ($19.99) served on a skewer. But I also adore the shawarma. Order mixed shawarma ($18.99), a combination of marinated chicken and beef, and it's served with tahini sauce, that famous garlic sauce, along with fries or rice.
If you've never had Middle Eastern ghallaba, this is the place for your initiation. Chicken, beef or lamb ($17.99-$19.99) is stewed with vegetables and spices and the smallest amount of mayonnaise. The vegetarian version ($15.99) is just as good. My favorite dish is available on Thursdays. Called mloukhieh ($14.99), it's made from stewed mallow leaves, which Kanaan imports from Egypt. The leaves are stewed with cilantro, garlic and chicken, and the result tastes like something between spinach and okra, served over rice.
Last year, Kanaan doubled his indoor seating to 74. Another 16 seats are available outside.
He also added a pita oven, from which basket after basket of warm, complimentary bread is delivered to diners throughout the meal. Lebanese hospitality doesn't get much better.
3055 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: Recommended on weekends and for large parties
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot