Mezze: a selection of small dishes served as an informal meal or a prelude to dinner in the Middle East and the Balkans. One reason I love mezze is that a typical spread includes several luscious vegetarian dishes: olives, stuffed vegetables or grape leaves, spreads made of beans or peppers, yogurt scented with garlic and cucumber, artichokes, fresh cheeses…
I never expected to find great Mediterranean food in Cleveland. We don’t get much sun in this part of the world. Neither lemons nor chickpeas are native to the land (though we grow some respectable garlic and spinach). Yet we have an amazingly good local chain called Aladdin’s, that makes reliably delicious and healthy lentil soup, hummus, falafel, etc. I was happy with their food– until the owner opened a more upscale Lebanese restaurant called Taza. Now I dream about the next time I can go there for another fix.
I don’t know what they do at Taza to make simple favorites like baba ganoush so transcendent. Fresher ingredients? More attention to detail? This is not the ho-hum baba you buy in tubs at the grocery store, or the bland, boring baba that I’ve made at home. According to Anthony Bourdain, restaurants make their food taste better than home-cooked food by adding butter and salt, and by cooking at higher temperatures. Of course it’s not a question of butter, as this is an olive-oil-based cuisine. But I suspect there’s a good deal more salt in the food than I would use at home. They can easily blacken their eggplants over a flame for a smoky flavor that I can’t match in my oven. And they include some nice touches, like a garnish of expensive pistachios on the jibneh.
This is the best Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food I’ve had– anywhere. The only possible exception is falafel that I ate from a storefront in the Marais, in Paris. Feast your eyes.
The jibneh is my favorite dish, the one I can’t do without, but also the most luxurious. The cheese is stunningly creamy, and perfectly complemented by the toppings of basil, pistachios, and what tastes like a balsamic reduction (it’s a pomegranate sauce).
The garlic spinach is quite salty. It’s sautéed and served with a topping of crispy fried onions. The baba is creamy, rich and smoky. More garlic! It’s lemony, but not overloaded with lemon juice, as sometimes happens.
The hummus fatteh is a dish of whole chickpeas combined with fried pita strips and yogurt sauce, garnished with parsley. The pita strips get saturated with the yogurt and take on a distinctive texture, a bit like an al dente noodle. This is not to be missed!
It’s easy to ruin falafel. I’ve had it too dry, overcooked so that the crust is hard and tough, undercooked and gooey, bitter… but the falafel at Taza is always perfect. The texture reminds me of the hush-puppies I remember from my childhood in the South. The only thing I would do to improve this dish is add some nice pickled veggies as a garnish (rather than making the customer buy them separately).
Grape leaves are also easy to screw up. Too many places serve thinly rolled leaves with hard, undercooked rice grains. Or slimy ones (ugh). These are tender, plump and toothsome.
Taza serves its mezze with little puffy pockets of fresh pita straight from the oven, as well as regular flatbread-style pita. And they have Benziger Sauvignon Blanc by the glass. Just the combination food and drink to send Linnet to paradise.