Mezze, Los Angeles (May 2011)

Aside from the two or three instances in which a “Moroccan-spiced” something or other has been placed in front of me at Gary Danko or Fleur de Lys, I’m as green as it gets when it comes to Middle Eastern and North African flavors. And since our meal at Red Medicine in March, my brother has tried to convince me that there are non-Michelin-starred establishments worth patronizing. After discussing several prospects, we settled on Mezze, a recently opened restaurant in Los Angeles–where David Myers’ now defunct one-star Michelin Sona once lived–specializing in small plates.

Almost as soon as we were seated and handed a menu, Mike, the informal and affable captain, introduced himself, noted our request for a tasting and promptly collected the menus before I even had a chance to look at it. But it mattered not at all.

Bringing out two plates at a time, Mike started us off with (1) a roasted beet salad with sheep’s milk yogurt, fried haloumi and fried chickpeas and (2) a smoked sturgeon flatbread with sumac, labne, pickled shallot and caper berries. Haloumi is one of the few cheeses that can withstand high temperatures without melting, and the one fried cube I ate was delicious. If I was going to be finicky, I would say the beets could have used salt. As for the florid flatbread, not only was it visually stunning, but the tang from the sumac laced with labne (a yogurty cheese) harmonized wonderfully with the smokey sturgeon.

The next set of plates was the evening’s best: (1) jackfish crudo, tahini and cherry gremolata, (2) torchon of foie gras, peanut brittle and compressed watermelon and (3) house-made pita. From the sweet reconstituted cherries with tender pieces of fish to the spreadable foie with doughy pita, just about every ingredient, save for the insipid watermelon, worked together symphonically.

Coaxed as if it were risotto, the al dente Israeli cous cous provided a bed for halved kumquats and two corals of uni.

For a nice complement to the citric cous cous, we enjoyed head-on blue prawns with nigella seeds, braised fennel, fennel purée and black olive.

Moving on to slightly heartier ingredients, Mike placed a duo of offal in front of us: (1) braised veal and sweetbread ravioli and (2) braised tripe, falafel and raw chickpeas. While the ravioli filling was nondescript, the falafel was better than any I have ever tasted, and I’d like to think I’ve had eaten a fair share of falafels at Amer’s in Ann Arbor. But this one simply dwarfs its competitors–beautifully seasoned and fried perfectly with the surface maintaining a fried chicken-like crust and the inside still practically oozing.

If one were to ask me what do you prefer, striped bass or potatoes? I would more often than not say striped bass. On this night, though, the pee wee potatoes coated in zhug–an Israeli hot sauce (think Sriracha but better)–and aioli eclipsed the sous vide, persillade-crusted striped bass with littleneck clams and spring pea mash. The fillet was incredibly moist but flavor-wise, failed to impress. This being the second time in as many dinners where I’ve been disappointed with a fish course, I have become all the more appreciative of Providence.

For what would be the final savory course of the night, we were given braised lamb shoulder with freekeh, dukkah and a side of bok choy. While the Maillard-reacted exterior of the lamb combined with the unctuous interior was unequivocally superb, part of me wanted to say, hey it’s 9:30pm and eighty degrees outside–couldn’t you send out something lighter, like a leaner cut or even poultry? I was given a chance to speak up when Chef Micah Wexler came over to chat, but instead we ended up talking about his time working for Joel Robuchon, the potential for mundanity-laced tasting menus, meal pacing and of course, our next dinner at Mezze. But before that, we still needed to tend to dessert.

First out–more of a palate cleanser really–was a labne cheesecake with blood orange and tangerine. Sitting atop a crumbly crust, the creamy but tangy cheesecake went well with the citrus supremes.

And to finish the meal proper, a pine nut tart with a silky olive oil gelato.

The friandise consisted of a meringue, almond nougat, baklava and two kinds of cookies, but my brother and I were both enthralled by the gingerbread.

What’s great about a place like Mezze and many of its peers is that one can get Michelin quality food–the chefs who run these places did after all work in those establishments–without the steep price tag and without an insecure chef peregrinating through the dining room in need of an ego massage. Indeed, by the meal’s end, I wasn’t the least bit chastened that I never dined at Sona.

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