Expectations are high when you’re Cheetie Kumar. It’s partially self-applied. But as one of the standard bearers of the Triangle’s food scene and a repeat James Beard Award nominee, diners anticipate a certain level of excellence. With the closure of her acclaimed restaurant Garland in downtown Raleigh last year, in some respects, the weight of Kumar’s culinary reputation rests on her new restaurant Ajja (209 Bickett Boulevard, Raleigh), which opens June 22.
There’s good news, though — Ajja steps out of the shadow of its predecessor.
Restaurants typically use a soft launch to work out some of the kinks, and as Kumar circulated among invited guests a few days before the Five Points restaurant’s public opening, some of that nervous anticipation was palpable. Yet the execution of the menu lands top to bottom, a testament to Kumar’s rigor and enthusiasm for this new spot.
Ajja’s vegetable-laden menu pulls from across the Mediterranean and southwest Asia, stretching from the Levant to Iran and India while bringing in some of North Carolina’s freshest produce. Diners might overlook the kuku sabzi, an herb-filled, frittata-adjacent dish topped with labneh and sweet chutney, for the more obvious summer delight, a tomato plate with juicy peaches, feta, and labneh. That would be a major mistake; order both. The lamb croquette, served with a pepper-based green schug sauce, is one of the few spicy dishes on the menu and also one of only a few that leans a little heavier. Most dishes are breezy and refreshing, particularly the cold-served minty pea dip with cucumber, charred spring onions, and crispy bread when eaten on Ajja’s expansive covered back patio.
The toor whip — think lentil-based hummus with blistered tomatoes — is a pleasant starter or side, while the lone dessert — konafi with golden milk semifreddo, blueberry-lemon glaze, shredded phyllo dough tart, and more — is absolutely mandatory. Patrons are in safe harbor whether they gravitate more toward the tender king trumpet mushrooms or the barely fried spare ribs.
Initially open for dinner only Thursday through Sunday, Ajja will expand to daytime weekend service with time. Kumar and partner Paul Siler have gotten some of the Garland band back together, including familiar faces in general manager Gaëllle Laforest and beverage manager Lindsay Ogden, and rely on chef Chris Gamble in the kitchen. Ajja occupies the back of a building that currently houses bakery Anisette, leaving it space for just four small indoor tables and a few bar seats. Kumar and Siler make up for that with a large back patio that includes double the bar space and spills into what feels like a lush backyard, including a fire pit waiting area, grassy lawn, and a partial view of the downtown skyline. It feels decidedly more casual and neighborhood-oriented than its predecessor, due in part to the line of single-family homes directly across the street.
The plan was never to replace Garland, which had become a Raleigh mainstay over its nearly decade-long tenure. But as plans crystalized for Ajja, its owners determined there were various reasons to focus their efforts and move on. Locals were justifiably upset, but if the initial peek at the operation is any indication, the tradeoff for Ajja will be worth it.
Trophy Brewing recently announced it will open a new location directly next door to the colorful Ajja, which will no doubt help the restaurant stay afloat but also complicate parking. That edge of Five Points is already dripping in suds — R&D, Nickelpoint, and Neuse River breweries are all right there — and Bright Spot donut shop is around the corner in this developing area just north of downtown. Yet Ajja brings something new to the neighborhood — and city. It’s a visual cross between the eastern Mediterranean and Palm Springs, with a little bit of Austin salted in. A wooden stage tucked into a back corner of the property sets it up to host musicians and other events — not surprising for the touring musicians and founders of Kings. But most noteworthy is the food, which feels both personal to Kumar and still playfully eclectic.