If you’ve been following the food scene in Raleigh, you probably have fond memories of Garland over on Martin Street! Opened up back in 2013, Garland brought a cool new sensibility to pan-Asian cuisine focused on Indian cuisine to the dining scene. As the pandemic closed, other doors opened and while Garland did close, Chef Cheetie was working on her next concept. Ajja, sprung to life in the Five Points neighborhood in Raleigh and I’ll admit to being a bit surprised. Between the location, size of the space, and menu. But sometimes you just have to trust the chef and I think that if you visit Ajja, you’ll find yourself in excellent hands across all the different phases of a dining experience. Read on for the details!
Ajja in Raleigh – Location, Decor
If you’re headed over to Ajja for dinner, just be aware that its location is in an odd spot in the Five Points neighborhood. This usually residential area has a small commercial district where construction has been ramping up over the years. The quickest way in is off of Capital Boulevard through an odd left-hand exit (Fairview Drive) or else you’ll have to wind your way off of Glenwood Avenue.
Located in what was previously Anisette Bakery, Ajja’s storefront is narrow and unassuming, white painted cinderblock walls and brick. Some bright orange signage painted on the wall directs you to the back of the building where you’ll find a hostess stand, covered patio, and bar along with some scattered tables further out and uncovered. I’m pretty sure the space was meant to be more of a casual, community-type setting in its previous life as a bakery.
I’ve had a chance to dine inside a couple of times, with the NC summer heat it just makes more sense to me! The seating is split up with maybe half indoors (front dining room, bar area) and the other half under a covered patio. The front dining room is currently under construction so eating indoors will take a reservation and some patience. Inside, the decor is light, bright, and colorful with a 70’s retro feel. From the plastic scoop chairs to the white globe lighting and the orange color highlights, Ajja definitely has a throwback feel.
Ajja in Raleigh – Menu, Food
Ajja has a smallish menu (16 items) focused on Mediterranean bites and plates ranging from cold dips, veggies, and grilled items like kebabs. Sitting at the bar, you can look into the open kitchen and watch all the cooking activity. I’ve tried the mafghoussa (eggplant, tomato) dip with crispy bread along with the noor whip (lentils, charred tomatoes, almonds). I enjoyed both but the crispy bread was SUPER crunchy and for those of us with dental work, I admittedly had to eat it very cautiously! The noor whip was more my speed, a deluxe hummus type offering with softer bread, a good starter on a hot summer’s evening.
I also tried the lamb croquette which was nicely fried and served with schug (green pepper sauce) and tomato chutney, well done. The menu seems to be pretty seasonal and changes pretty quickly so if you like something you see, order it! And the cocktail menu is pretty inventive, similar to what I would have expected at the old Garland restaurant downtown.
For the mains, the braised spareribs were solid, three lean, meaty bones in an Asian-type marinade. And the lamb seekh kebab was served off the stick, a bit chewy but full of flavor. Given it’s more of a small plates restaurant, the proteins seem to come bare but I admit I would like to be able to add a side of rice pilaf or grilled veggies to make it more of a meal here.
And you definitely don’t want to miss dessert at Ajja, both times I closed my meals with a kanofi dessert (shredded phyllo) along with a mango saffron possat (pudding with fruit granita, blueberries, pistachio crunch). Both desserts were light, fruity, and refreshing and showed off an array of textures and flavors. I’m not a huge dessert person but would make the effort here to finish your meal strong with some sweets!
Ajja in Raleigh – Service, Conclusion
Service at Ajja was excellent for both of my visits! The staff is very professional, courses out the meal nicely, and work efficiently in their tight service space and kitchen. You’ll probably need a reservation to dine here, given the smaller space and limited indoor seating.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with Ajja but feel like they are still working out the kinks of a much smaller space that wasn’t originally a restaurant. Maybe it’s just that I dearly miss the old Garland space which was really top-notch in decor but what can you do? Ajja is still doing a lot of things right, out of the chute. And given the experienced hands and taste of its owners, I wouldn’t have expected any different. Ajja may be one of the few, truly bright spots for the Raleigh food scene given the increasingly cautious development of restaurants in the area where risks and creativity are in such short supply right now. So thank you Ajja for taking on some of that risk to move our food scene forward!