1515 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City ; 801-484-9259
One of Salt Lake City's treasures. This tiny, but crowded, Lebanese cafe serves up a delicious, ambitious menu.
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Hours: M-S, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Liquor: Beer & Wine
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Hummus, baba ghannouj, chicken mutabbak, labneh.
March 8, 2006
Mazza melds elegance, vividness of Lebanese food
By Mary Brown Malouf
The walls of Mazza, the Middle Eastern cafe, are lined with photographs of old Beirut, once known as the "Paris of the Middle East," not because the French ruled Lebanon for several influential decades, but because Beirut, like Paris, was a city of light, a center of culture and cuisine.
Fortunately, cuisine carries culture. Wherever in the world people go, they take their recipes. At least some of the culture of now-battered Beirut still thrives in the kitchen at Mazza.
When it comes to Middle Eastern food, I'm biased for toward Lebanese cuisine. From Iran to Turkey to Israel, the food is similar, but in one of the most contentious parts of the world, there is an amazing accord on the plate. All over the Middle East, people eat lamb grilled on skewers, minced meat mixed with mint and allspice, flat breads, dried fruits, hot and cold pilafs of rice, lentils and wheat. I find the Lebanese versions more subtle, more elegant. They say a Lebanese chef is prized the way a French chef is -- both coming come from cultures where good food is understood, appreciated and elevated to an art.
Through marriage, I learned to cook the family favorites from two Lebanese "sitti," or grandmothers, whose styles were quite different. Mazza's style is different still, but it achieves an amazingly balanced vividness.
Hummus ($4.99) is a dish that has become as common as guacamole and just as abused. Mazza's version is perfect: a glossy, unctuous cream of garbanzos with tahini, garlic, lemon and oil. It's the quintessential Middle Eastern dish -- humble, everyday ingredients metamorphosed into sublimity drizzled with golden olive oil. Scoop it up with fresh, hot puffs of ephemeral pita.
Hummus, pita and baba ghannouj ($5.50) -- charred eggplant purée that's become almost as well-known as hummus -- these are dishes that are headed for the same universality as tacos and pizza. This is no longer "exotic" food, but Mazza owner Ali Sabbah is more than a restaurateur, he is a food evangelist. His message evolves by revising the menu, introducing new tastes, coaxing his customers to try new dishes. He even designs his beer and wine list to include several from the Middle East and North Africa such as Guerrouanne Rouge from Morocco and Massaya Classic White from Lebanon.
So Mazza's menu offers many dishes more mysterious than the expected tabbouleh ($5.50), predominantly finely minced parsley with scallions, mint, tomatoes and bulgur tossed in a lemony dressing, and the fattoush ($4.99), torn pita, parsley, romaine, scallions, mint, tomatoes and cucumbers in another lemony dressing.
If you think I sound repetitive, it's because I am. Many of the ingredients in these dishes are the same; the proportion and seasoning are what distinguishes them. And everything is minced into tiny pieces. Like Chinese food, this cuisine requires more prep time than cooking time.
Sabbeh recently added more complicated dishes to his menu of kebabs (shawarma, lamb, beef or vegetable and falafel, from $5 a skewer to $14.95 a platter), classics such as stuffed grape leaves ($3.99) and signature dishes like chicken mutabbak ($10.95). The latter was a glorious mélange of layered chicken, potatoes and softened onions in a tamarind-tinged sauce. These kinds of mingled flavors, each component seasoning the others without overpowering them, are the genius of Lebanese cooking. For example, lamb and rice dolaas ($14.95), small chunks of complexly seasoned lamb with rice are braised in lamb broth. A garnish of toasted almonds and pine nuts lend a sophisticated crunch to the rich stew.
But the glory of Lebanese food is the "mazza" -- the word meaning a repast of many small dishes, somewhat like tapas; strong flavors meant to be shared and savored. My favorite way to eat at Mazza is to order mazza, a sampler plate of three dips or spreads.
Offerings such as loobia ($3.99), fresh green beans simmered with tomatoes and onions, complement new dips such as beesarah ($4.99), a vegetable stew of fava beans, garlic and onions, and mujadarra ($4.50), brown lentils and rice seasoned with cardamom and cumin, then finished with a tangle of caramelized onions. The labneh ($4.50) should be ordered no matter what. Snowy, soft yogurt, the consistency of whipped cream cheese but with a clear tang on the tongue, is the perfect counterpoint to the rich mixes of the other mazza. Equally spectacular is the muhammara ($5.99), a gorgeously rosy paste of roasted red bell peppers and ground walnuts sweetened with pomegranate molasses. DipDab it on to crisp green romaine leaves.
Service was good, even though the place was crowded, as it always is. Our young server even took time to explain the new dishes to us. We have seldom visited Mazza when Sabbeh was not there to seat people, assist with service and generally serve as genial host.
My main quibble with Mazza is its size. The place is tiny; that's a good way for a restaurant to ensure quality. Not-so-funny things can happen to food when it's cooked in quantity. But Mazza's small size combined with its popularity works against the full appreciation of the food. It's hard to relax and linger when your chair is bumping the person's behind you and the crowd jammed in the little entryway is obviously lusting after your table.
And the food at Mazza deserves lingering. Like all great cuisines, these are dishes that sensationally satisfy the palate. But the culture of the cuisine demands that good food should fuel -- and even inspire -- conversation and laughter.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.