Restaurant Review - Lebanese tongue teaser

Middle Eastern Mezza hits the right neighborhood note

“You haven’t been to Mezza yet?” asks my neighbor Nicole when I complain to her about the lack of decent restaurants in our Oak Grove ‘hood. I tell her the initial reports on the Lebanese tapas spot, nestled in a small shopping center shared by Five Sisters Café and a small gourmet market, had been largely tepid. “It’s gotten better since it opened,” she insists.
?Nostalgia had also kept me away. In its former incarnation it was Catalina's, one of the most underrated Italian restaurants in the city. I still miss their crisp-tender fried calamari and gutsy marinara. Alas, change is indeed the only constant, particularly in the restaurant world.

When I walk into Mezza, though, I half expect to see Catalina's blonde tresses disappearing into the kitchen. With the exception of beautifully framed black-and-white photographs of Beirut, the space — an open room anchored by a bar in the center — is barely different. The burgundy tablecloths may even be the same.

Fortunately, the new owners have also retained the casual, welcoming air that makes this a popular destination for the local community, particularly on the weekends. As with Spanish tapas, the menu is comprised entirely of traditional, appetizer-sized plates of Lebanese mezze (translated, I'm guessing for phonetics sake, as "mezza" here and at other Lebanese eateries around town). However it's spelled, it's a fun way to nosh on both familiar and lesser-known Middle Eastern dishes.

The list of choices is mighty long, so skim for ingredients that look appealing and go from there. Vegetarian mezza run $5.99 a plate, non-vegetarian $6.99 a piece, and soup and salad choices are $4.99 each. I notice most tables order two to three dishes per person, then order more if they're still hungry. The other option for tables of three or more — and my favorite way to eat here — is to order family-style ($16.99 per person), where you choose two or three mezza from each category and dig in as the parade of dishes begins to arrive.

Since I'm a sucker for caramelized onions, we begin with piquant greens with copious amounts of garlic mellowed by long simmering, and topped with the jammy onions. The fool mudammas (which sounds like it should be the name of a famous court jester from medieval Europe) are dried favas beans, cooked until soft and marinated with olive oil, cumin and lemon. Next comes muhammara, a spicy, pureed mix of red peppers, walnuts and pistachios that does what it can to perk up the warm but seemingly store-bought pita served here with meals.

Makanek is the Lebanese version of pigs in a blanket — spicy, ground sausage encased in a thin layer of dough. These fragrant nibblies disappear quickly off the plate. Chicken shawarma, another dish that inspires an impressive vanishing act, is tender breast meat marinated, baked and placed on a bed of rice and toasted vermicelli noodles moistened with tahini sauce.

I tend to avoid the commonplace dishes (hummus, baba ganoush, taboulleh) when I can have something a bit more out of the ordinary, but when I bite into a hot, crispy falafel my eyebrows ascend in surprise. This is the best falafel I've had since I left New York. The interior is soft and lemony, seasoned just so to meld with the toasty, nutty taste of the tahini drizzled on top.

A few of their dishes disappoint. The fattoush, a popular Lebanese salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers with toasted pita bread standing in for croutons, doesn't have quite enough zip. Shanklish, traditionally a delicious, crumbly cheese of sorts made from dried yogurt and seasoned with a cumin-sumac spice mix called zatar, is here made with feta as a shortcut. It just ain't the same. And lemon shrimp look and taste like a grocery-store holiday shrimp cocktail platter.

The restaurant has a modest but reasonably priced wine list (all glasses $5, most bottles $20). A crisp Sancerre is a good complement to this cuisine's zesty spices. You might also try a sweet, refreshing drink called Toot ($1.99), made with mulberries, which grow prodigiously in Lebanon.

Then comes dessert. Because Middle Eastern sweets can be so sugary, I recommend ordering strong, bitter Turkish coffee for balance. Ask for cardamom to be added — it lends a heady perfume to complement the baklava that comes with the family-style option ($3.99 for all separate desserts). The good-natured servers bring several kinds of baklava to the table, but the thin, rectangular type stuffed with pistachios is the best. Date-filled mamoul pastries remind me of Fig Newtons, never my favorite junk food, but a housemade ice cream with toffee-like bits of caramelized almond goes down well with the coffee.

This is a great place to come with friends or a crowd, particularly if there are vegetarians in the mix, but I wouldn't recommend coming here alone. Typically, I'm perfectly content to eat on my own. But when I pop in on a recent weeknight for a bite by myself, I find it's me and five other tables of young, amorous couples. I spend the whole of my meal defensively buried in my dog-eared issue of Gourmet, feeling like I'm in a scene from Bridget Jones's Diary.

Nonetheless, it's a pleasure to find a hospitable neighborhood restaurant that offers competent ethnic fare at affordable prices. Atlanta's would-be restaurateurs please take note: We could always use more places like this around town.