Tuesday, March 19, 2024


Every now and then, a restaurant comes along that reminds you how exciting food can be. Ajja recently opened in the Five Points neighborhood in Raleigh, and immediately had a cult following (these are the folks behind the beloved restaurant Garland, which shuttered its doors post-Covid). After a recent dining experience where we tried nearly everything on the menu, it's easy to see why Ajja was also recently nominated for a James Beard Award ("the Oscars of the food world"). The atmosphere, service and ever-changing menu will have you returning again and again.

We dined al fresco on a beautiful spring evening, with a lovely view of downtown Raleigh in the distance. The patio is stunning, complete with bright lights, colorful artwork and an enormous firepit. Ajja's "borrowed" and "signature" cocktail list is a perfect place to start. I opted for the "Wait For It", a wonderfully balanced mixture of Gin, Orange and Calabrian Chiles with a hint of Lime and Honey. (I wasn't bold enough to try the "Mary Had a Little Dram", featuring Lamb fat-washed Mezcal, but maybe next time.) Instead, we opted for lamb in food form, and were wowed by the Croquettes. One is big enough to share, but you might not want to. They're perfectly crispy and savory, and even better when wiped through an herby Schug sauce and sweet Tomato Coulis.

Never in a million years would I have imagined a place could have so many delicious dips and spreads, but the place does exist. And it's Ajja. (I have to admit - I enjoyed these more than any of the proteins we ordered!) Warm Moroccan Hummus is chunky and better than anything you'd find at the store. It's topped with Sweet Peppers, a drizzle of Tahini Yogurt, Sumac Onions and Corn Flakes for texture, along with a handful of other delights to make this a great starter. Carrot Houriya is a love song to carrots. They're caramelized, which brings out the sweetness, and topped with tangy Goat Cheese and a mound of slivered Almonds for crunch. Both of these are served with a nice, dense, Sesame bread.

Carrot Houriya, Lamb Croquettes and Joel's hand

The *star* dip was the Warm Squash Dip, featuring purees of both Butternut and Delicata Squashes, with brown butter for richness and Pomegranate Molasses for brightness. My only complaint was not having enough toast points to enjoy this dip (it's ok, I just used my spoon).

A nice, bright Citrus Salad features Baby Romaine, Endive and a first for our table - Candied Dukkah (an ancient grain) - which gave a nice salty/sweet note and crunch. Broccoli Rabe had just been added to the menu and was well-received by 50% of our party - others were turned off by the bitterness of the vegetable.

Citrus Salad

Our favorite protein of the night was the unassuming, humble Chicken Thighs. Do not sleep on this! Tender meat is marinated in Buttermilk, Garlic, Cilantro and a hint of Lemon and just melts in your mouth. I had high hopes for the Lamb Seekh following that outstanding Croquette we had earlier, but this rendition was a little chewy. Lamb Shoulder is cubed and served on a (shallow) pool of Labneh and topped with crunchy Pistachios, but I couldn't find the promised Acorn Squash. This dish was just OK for me. We also had mixed reactions to the Spare Ribs, that were topped with a Peach-Tamarind glaze and served over a bed of Turmeric Cabbage. I enjoyed the flavor more than the texture of the meat, which seemed a bit chewy and overcooked to me.

We didn't have an ounce of room for dessert (I would have made room for more Warm Squash Dip if I could have) but after-dinner libations proved to be just the ticket. I was pretty thrilled with our experience and appreciated the prompt, frequent checkbacks from our congenial server. Make your reservations now because this place is busy. Hopefully you can snag a table later this spring to enjoy the fabulous patio. You won't be disappointed.

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