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Hit or miss; Mezza offers menu full of Lebanese favorites

I fell in love with Lebanese food during childhood dinners, enchanted by Lebanese grandmas' versions of hummus, chickpea dip enriched with ground sesame paste; babaganoush, roasted eggplant dip; and tabouli, the tangy salad of bulgur wheat, parsley and tomato.

My adult experiences with Lebanese restaurants have been checkered, with lots of watery tabouli, bland hummus and fudgy falafel. So when we walked into Mezza, in its handsome building on one of Elmwood Avenue's busiest blocks, I had high hopes.

The front room contains a bar, couches and a staircase to the second floor, where most of the dining happens. We were walked by open tables and seated at one that commanded a view of the bathroom alcove and what appeared to be a collection of table laundry near the kitchen door.

Shish Tawouk ($16) is a sort of grilled marinated chicken kabob that's not on every Lebanese menu, so I ordered it with "traditional" fattoush salad and za'atar fries as sides. Cat went for an Eraydess platter ($16), which is skewers of grilled seasoned shrimp, and chose more traditional fattoush and rice pilaf for sides.

There are plenty of hot and cold mezza, or appetizers, on the menu. We wanted to try lots, so we both picked the "Favorite Five" option, described as a taste of any five of the hot or cold appetizers for another $8.

Our server waited patiently as Cat and I dithered over the list of 10. The service was attentive overall, with few lulls.

Mezza's fattoush was topped with a few thin strips of deep-fried pita bread. Baked or fried pita chips are a main component of fattoush, giving the salad a delightful toasty crunch. The ratio of pita nuggets to romaine lettuce and grape tomatoes was disappointing.

We munched a few forkfuls and stopped. There was no mint I could detect, possibly because of the dressing. Instead of olive oil and fresh lemon juice or vinegar, all I could taste on these greens was concentrated lemon, all acidity with none of the richness and smoothness the oil usually confers. We left our salads unfinished and moved on.

Our kabob platters and appetizer samplers arrived at the same time, making for a crowded table. The tawouk chicken pieces were drier than I like, apparently cooked longer, but their marinated-then-grilled flavor brought me back for more, especially when I started dipping into the little cup of toom, or fresh garlic sauce. This pungent but addicting condiment will leave you breathing garlic fumes, but happy -- unless someone won't kiss you, which is a possible consequence. (My recommendation is that partners dip together.)

Cat got her grilled shrimp into the toom -- "outrageous," she said, reaching for more. But even without it, the shrimp were tasty -- cooked longer than optimum, probably, but still delicious.

My fries needed more za'atar, the herb-sumac-sesame blend, to avoid blandness. Cat applauded her pilaf for its "toasty, stick-to-your-ribs" quality.

The appetizers, served in small dabs, delivered several hits. The sembousik bi jibni, little fried turnovers stuffed with oozy mozzarella and herbs, were tender and comforting. The tabouli was excellent, with a tangy balance of parsley, bulgur and tomato, not soaking in liquid. The kab koobi, a fried shell containing seasoned beef, onions and pine nuts, offered satisfying contrasts between chewy exterior and tender insides, and we wanted more.

The kefta, or seasoned ground beef kabob, was admirably fire-crusted and seasoned well. The labne bi heshwa, thick strained yogurt topped with seasoned beef and pine nuts, was rich and tangy. I could have made a meal out of enough of either.

The hummus was satisfyingly nutty, and the falafel offered decent crust but doughy interior. Fuul mudemas, small stewed fava beans, were tender enough but seemed plain.

For dessert, we got baklava ($5) and Lebanese Cocktail ($6), a sort of fresh fruit cocktail with cream and ground pistachios. The baklava was sweet and nutty but could have used more flavor, cinnamon or orange blossom water or whatever. The cocktail turned out to be a dainty helping of fresh orange and apple. Refreshing enough, but like a few other parts of our meal, it left me wanting more.

email: agalarneau@buffnews.com

***

Mezza Restaurant & Lounge

Casual Lebanese spot has more satisfying hits than disappointments.

7 (out of 10)

WHERE: 929 Elmwood Ave. (885-4400, www.mezzabuffalo.com)

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

PRICE RANGE: Wraps, flatbread pizzas, $8-$10; entrees $10-$22.

PARKING: Lot behind building, off Delavan.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

Editor's note: The News is changing to a numerical scale to weigh restaurants. Instead of one to four stars, restaurants will be rated from 1 ("stay home") to 10 ("among the best"), with 5 "worth a try." The number grade reflects the quality of food, service, ambience and value, with the food given most emphasis.