Photos courtesy Nicole Brown Potts of Dream Tree Design.
Traditional Middle Eastern food is hard to find in Southwest Michigan, one exception being Ibrahim Parlak’s stellar Café Gulistan in Harbor Country.
A bright red and gold sign proudly holds the waving “Open” flag along Red Arrow Highway, beckoning you to walk alongside a gorgeously tended garden toward the entrance – a great complement to the restaurant’s name, which means “Land of Roses” in Kurdish.
It’s plain to see that Café Gulistan is the essence of its owner’s great American dream, one that we’re lucky to be a part of.
Inside, the large dining room is all at once unassuming and eye-catching with details like hand-woven rugs, maps and traditional clothing hanging from the walls, reflecting Kurdish culture. Middle Eastern music plays throughout the space, helping keep you in the right frame of mind.
For a hungry couple of friends, the only place to start on the menu was the combo platter appetizer, a large plate loaded with traditional Middle Eastern foods.
My greatest craving that evening was for falafil (or falafel), crispy fried chickpea patties with which I experienced love at first bite on a trip to Egypt years ago. Café Gulistan’s offering passed the test with flying colors, the crispy fried shell giving way to fluffy, tender ground chickpeas and spices.
The heap of ezme in the middle of the platter was unexpectedly fiery. It was the kind of heat that sneaks up on you; you take a bite, savor the deeply flavored combination of tomatoes, peppers and chilies, then exhale sharply with an, “Oooh, that’s hot.”
Rounding out the large appetizer platter were fresh, cool tabouleh (bulgur, tomato, cucumber, finely chopped herbs and seasonings), tasty hummus (ground chickpeas, tahini and seasonings) and earthy babaghanoush (eggplant mashed with olive oil and spices).
With few customers in the dining room on this particular Tuesday night, our entrées were ready before we could even finish our starter. Our good-natured server made sure we ate every last bite, leaving the remaining food on the table to dip into alongside our main dishes.
Many authentic Middle Eastern dishes are vegetarian, and in accordance with Muslim tradition, pork is traditionally replaced with lamb as the primary meat. No complaints from the vegetarian and carnivore sharing this table.
The vegetarian entrée, Ispanek, arrived to the table with its fried chickpea patties and sautéed vegetables immersed in a sea of bright orange garlic-mango-walnut cream sauce. A large bowl of Basmati rice – another Middle Eastern staple – accompanied the Ispanek.
I’m not sure how any dish with a description including the words “fried chickpea patties” could be bad, but the Ispanek delivered both on delectability and visual appeal.
Walking into just about any Middle Eastern restaurant, I have one thing on my mind: lamb. I could go on and on and on about a ground lamb dish you can find on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but I won’t (hint: the restaurant is called Sip Sak).
Gulistani, one of Café Gulistan’s lamb specialties, features ground New Zealand lamb sautéed with spices and spring onion, served over Basmati rice and surrounded by a wreath of deep fuchsia-colored sumac and cabbage salad. This was exactly what I hoped for.
The ground lamb was perfectly tender and required no additional seasoning (in my book, a true sign someone back in the kitchen knows what they’re doing). The salad balanced the dish with its snappy bite and bright color.
With a table near a window overlooking the garden, I wish we had made our way to Café Gulistan earlier in the year to dine outside. That desire was quickly forgotten thanks to a few simple words, “Are you saving room for the baklava?”
The rich, sweet pastry adorned with strawberries and chocolate was the perfect way to end the meal. A time-consuming process, making baklava requires binding layer upon layer of filo dough together with chopped nuts sweetened with syrup or honey.
Fully satiated and armed with leftovers, our dining experience at Café Gulistan was excellent from top-to-bottom, including the delicious food, attentive service and jovial atmosphere.
A storied tale of perseverance in search of the American dream, Café Gulistan gives you much more than a wonderful ethnic meal. It gives you the opportunity to champion the right to that dream.
Ibrahim immigrated to the United States from Turkey in 1991 and worked a series of jobs in the restaurant business before opening Café Gulistan in 1994 in Harbert, Michigan.
Despite the well-deserved reputation and success of his restaurant since then, Ibrahim’s time in the U.S. has been tumultuous since 2001. In November of that year, his two-year-old application for U.S. citizenship was denied.
Then, in 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice rescinded the protection of political asylum granted to him in 1992. Ibrahim was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security in November 2004 and ruled deportable to Turkey.
After 10 months of incarceration, he was released from jail by petition for Habeas Corpus and since then has been fighting deportation through the court system. In May 2010, the Department of Homeland Security said they will not seek to deport Ibrahim for two years.
Through it all, Ibrahim’s community supported him and continues to do so today. Such misfortune and oppression cannot overshadow the great success story of his restaurant.
13581 Red Arrow Highway
Jennifer’s Impression in a Nutshell: