Kaza Maza: yowza!
Had been hearing good things about Kaza Maza, a fairly new Middle Eastern café on the east side of Parc between Mont-Royal and Villeneuve (about a half block south of Cocoa Locale). Since they're open late (till 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, midnight on other days except Mondays, when they're closed), a couple of friends and I decided to check it out after last Friday's wine tasting.
The dining space and kitchen occupy the bottom floor of a duplex. Most of the interior walls have been removed -- the main room extends from the bay window in front to a window that overlooks the back alley -- and many of the remaining walls have been stripped to brick. The floors, tables and chairs are wood. Photos and paintings (which may be for sale) cover the walls. The feel is airy, unpretentious and a little bohemian, more Mile End than Outremont.
The place was three-quarters full at 22:45 on Friday. A trio -- young guys playing cool jazz with a '50s feel -- embarked on an unscheduled third set just after we arrived. (The café features live music on Fridays and Saturdays.) We were seated promptly. Glasses of water and a dish of olives and lupini were soon delivered to the table, along with the menus. Service was friendly, fluently bilingual (if not trilingual). Explanations (at least the ones I could hear) were clear and guidance was provided when requested.
We began with an assortment of three cold mezze ($20 for 3, $30 for 5). I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The baba ghanouj may be the best I've encountered anywhere. Silky, dusky flavoured yet lemony bright, haunted by smoke, spangled with pomegranate seeds -- irresistible. The mouhammara was also outstanding: sweet yet piquant, vegetabley yet fruity (hello, grenadine!) and even meaty (before she knew what it was, one of the party declared it had to have lamb in it) with a generous portion of walnut halves providing a perfect foil. The mutabbal -- shredded red beets dressed with yogurt, lemon and tahini, garnished with nuts and drizzled with olive oil -- could not have been better. A small fattouch (which was actually quite large; portions here are generous) was also outstanding, a fresh mix of lettuce and raw vegetables, lightly dressed, vibrant with sumac and made to order, as evidenced by the unwilted greens and crisp-toasted pita chips.
What impressed most about the cold mezze was their depth of flavour and balance. The three hot mezze that came next had depth of flavour in spades. Humus kawarma is a dish of excellent chickpea purée topped with a pile of spicy ground lamb. Kafta aux aubergines is a casserole of coarse-textured, beautifully spiced sausauge chunks baked with eggplant and tomatoes. A Friday night special was a falling-from-the-bone lamb shank with onions and tomatoes in a creamy tahini sauce. All would have been winners had they not been oversalted. And not by a little. We're talking wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-your-throat-feeling-like-you've-just-crossed-the-Sahara levels of saltiness here. Everything else about the dishes -- flavours, cooking, presentation -- was spot on. But the sodium choloride meant they could only be sampled, not snarfed. Since the cold mezze, which would have been made beforehand, didn't suffer from this problem, we hypothesized that this is an issue with the night cook.
The salt was the only sour note of the evening. And we all agreed we'd be back, albeit admonishing the kitchen to go light on the NaCl when placing our orders.
As I said, portions were generous. Despite not finishing the hot dishes, we left stuffed. The tab -- including taxes but not the tip (also, having downed quite a bit of wine at the tasting, we drank only water with our meal) -- came to $75.
First-rate food bursting with flavour in a congenial setting. I plugged kaza and maza into the Chowhound search engine and came up with nada. How can this be? The menu's lengthy, so there's lots to try and report on. Please do.
Excited? Well, perfect baba ghanouj does push a lot of my buttons...
Still, the obvious disclaimers apply: single visit; late in a very long day; following a tasting with 15 wines. And then there's the salt. Still, no one else I've heard from or read has complained of oversalting. That and the overall excellence of the cooking (salt aside) would point to its being a one-time occurrence (maybe the chef mistakenly salted twice) and argues strongly in favour of giving the resto a second chance. As I mentioned, all three of us on Friday enthusiastically declared that we'd be back.
moh's comparison with Alep had occurred to me, too, but I was hesitant to make it on the basis of one meal. While differing in details, KM's food certainly appears to be on that exalted level, though I expect their wine list isn't.
Yup Carswell, don't hold the breath on the wine list...
When I compare it to Alep, I am comparing the daring, outrageously bold yet perfectly balanced spicing of the dishes. You almost think it is too much, but instead you yell "more, more". In these dishes , you appreciate the exotic allure of the Spice Route, and understand why people would travel miles and risk lives and limb to get their hands on these marvelous spices. Boy i really hope the oversalting was one off.
But the dining experience at Alep is much more refined than Kaza Maza, and of course, certain dishes are different at one vs. the other. The wine list, the service, the atmosphere are all lovely at Alep. Kaza Maza is more laid back, more casual. Plus, that terbialy sauce at Alep! And that glorious kibbe nayeh, whoah, so sublime. Each place has its strengths. I'm just so excited we have such choice! Plus, Kaza is just so close to home, it's awesome.
«When I compare it to Alep, I am comparing the daring, outrageously bold yet perfectly balanced spicing of the dishes.»
D'ac. They also share a devotion to quality ingredients and freshness. Nothing tastes stale.
The dining experience at KM is more akin to Le Petit Alep, wouldn't you say? Anyway, I liked it. Plus as one of our party noted, "what an attractive crowd, and no beautiful people."
I had been meaning to write up a little report , but life has been crazy. An old CHer and I hit this place up about a month ago, and like Carswell, we really loved this place. The Fattouche salad is wonderful, only rivalled by the one I've had at Alep. But I think I loved this Fatouche even better, the salad was nicely garnished with bits of fresh red and yellow peppers, fresh pomegranate seeds and that lovely sumac, sour and bright on the mouth. I do wonder if they'll be able to keep the fresh pomegranate seeds in regularly, what with pomegranates not always in season. Bu they were so perfect in the salad.
We also loved the Muttabal betteraves. Such a lovely way to eat beets! It was a wonderful counterpoint to the sour and fresh fattouche.
We had the Hummus Kwarma. What brilliance to put lamb on the hummus, this is such a great way to eat hummus. We also had the Kefta avec aubergines, which came piping hot from the kitchen, the meat in a bubbling tomato sauce with glorious roasted chunks of eggplant. We were there for lunch, and did not have the same problem with oversalting that Carswell experienced. Both dishes very strongly seasoned, but perfectly balanced. Flavour in spades, these two dishes also heated up well then next day.
We also had the Bastourma, spiced beef slices served with labneh (smooth creamy cheese) on the side. The bastourma has all of the wonderful smelliness and strength of flavour it should have, and the creamy labneh was an excellent accompaniment, allowing one to experience the strength of the Bastourma, with a little creamy break in between.
This place is in some ways equal to the experience at Alep/Petit Alep. I hope they'll be able to figure out the salt levels, and I hope Carswell's experience was not the norm. Because our meal was fabulous. The portions don't look huge at first, but by the time you add all the pita, the amounts are actually quite generous. I think the best way to appreciate this place is to go and share plates with others, rather than get your own plates. You want to experience a balance of hot and cold flavours, and you must get the fattouche, it is just so very refreshing between bites of creamy pastes and rich meaty dishes. Definitely worth checking out! We'll be going back very soon, and hope to try a bunch of the other dishes.
Thank you for the great report, carswell. And thank you moh for the added info. This place is going on my short list of places to check out when I'm back in town.
I agree with the above posters, everything we had there was excellent and it is a charming space. We haven't had the lamb yet, so I do hope they'll go a bit lighter on the salt.
If I recall the toilets downstairs would be very hard to access for anyone with mobility problems, which is a shame if we'd like to take older relatives, since mezze-sized portions are often ideal if dining with seniors.
The restaurant space itself is very charming and welcoming, and yes, I was with an Arabic speaker so the service is at least trilingual.