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Mezza - Chow Alert for Excellent Lebanese Cuisine in the Southern Hemisphere of the Westside

Attention Westside Chowhounds who are frazzled from the traffic nightmares while seeking Chow-worthy Lebanese in Glendale/Burbank, the San Fernando Valley and Westwood: Excellent Lebanese cuisine has arrived in Culver City!!

No - great Lebanese and the lower Westside is not an oxymoron - at least no longer. The ever-alert and adventurous poster Dommy! added a post this afternoon to this current thread titled, "A Chow-worthy Neighborhood to Move to."

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/698706

Mentioning just a brief blurb about Mezza in Culver City, and adding links to J. Gold's article from yesterday's LA Weekly (totally missed it), as well as to one of her always-appreciated photo streams, I knew it had to be something really good. We immediately dropped our plans for Torihei in Torrance and turned the car east, and we were well-rewarded.

Mezza has been open for exactly "two weeks and two days." The proprietor Jake's mantra for this evening as diner after diner kept blurting out, "Wow, the _____ is really good - how long have you been here?"

The five of us (three adults, two kids) shared the fried cauliflower & eggplant, kibbi, sambousek, two orders of falafel, and battah harra for apps, the tabouli, the kafta kabob and the shrimp kabob with hummus, spicy hummus and more tabouli for entrees, and the baklava and ashta for dessert. I wanted the jalab (jallab) but they had a run on this all day and were unfortunately out.

The requisite pickled vegetables and olives are presented once the food starts to role out. The olives are not as bitter as some places and the turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage and onions are just tart and seasoned well. The pita is the thinner type if you're familiar with Alcazar's. Nothing stellar but still fresh. I think this style of pita is meant to be a foil to greater things around the table.

Everything we ordered hit high on the taste meter, save the eggplant - it was pretty good but was overshadowed by the fried cauliflower. The cauliflower alone made our visit worth it. The seasoning truly highlighted the cauliflower's nuttiness which were fried just enough to give a slightly crispy texture on the outside, but still steamy and fragrant on the inside.

The tabouli was so good and perfectly balanced that we ordered it again for our side options on the two entrees, along with the hummus and spicy hummus, which were perfectly seasoned, not salty, and highlighted with generous amounts of lemon. The tabouli was wonderful.

The kibbi was crunchy, not oily and the meat filling was so savory. This we devoured very quickly, but the sambousek, tasty morsels of minature meat-filled turnovers were gone in no time. A little squeeze of lemon on these were fantastic as well.

The battah harra appeared a bit oily but between the seasoning (gotta love that garlic), the perfect saute and the brightness of the lemon juice, my little eight-year old was fighting off the rest of us in order to defend her "square lemony french fries."

Like parts is parts from hardware store to hardware store, falafels are falafels at so many Mediterranean places, but Mezza's really caught us off guard. These are perfectly fried, no old oily smell, and there's something about the soft warm inside that would scratch the meat itch for vegetarians for some reason - it did for me. The tahini is very lemony (as is the general rule in Lebanese cuisine), and that tinge of acid truly balances out the complex with the more basic flavors of their falafel.

The shrimp kabob had a nice char on it. We initially feared that they would be dry and tough as rubber but the skills of the chef were confirmed. Still succulent and sweet inside - the char added another smokey dimension to the perfectly seasoned shrimp. The dish came with a creamy garlic condiment - I don't know the name but is not uncommon in Mediterranean cuisine. Creamy garlic and shrimp - what a perfect match. Jake (the young proprietor) said that it is made in-house and also is served with their fish kabobs and chicken tawook kabobs. This condiment has all the good in garlic without the harsh bite. It's creamy, a little tangy and kinda sums the basic aspects of Lebanese cuisine: Lemon, garlic, olive oil and serious deliciousness.

The kafta kabob was amazing as well. As J. Gold described it in his write-up, there's something else completely different going on in its bold seasoning. I can't put my finger on the aromatics, but it's an amazing version of kafta.

The baklava was sweet, but not achingly sweet. The syrup was pure in taste - no weird aftertaste one gets with cheap versions - and the fresh crushed pistachios added another dimension to the dessert.

They slipped a little on the ashta. The rosewater infused cream came on a dish garnished with strawberries, bananas, mint and pine nuts, but they forgot to drizzle on the syrup. I say they slipped a little because we forgot to mention whether we wanted syrup or honey - they just forgot to ask or confirm. Nonetheless, we slid spoonfuls of the ashta in the syrup and pistatchios from the baklava and all was well. A very nice dessert.

I can't say enough about the kitchen's chef. His name is difficult for me to even think about pronouncing but he is a magician. He is such a master with the matrix of grill, bold, light, balance and technique that just about everything was amazing. My diminutive 81-year old mom accompanied us. She normally won't touch cuisines from the Mediterranean because they can be so heavy and bold in so many ways, but she very much enjoyed the food as well - even the kafta kabob. We didn't tell her where we were going when we hijacked her or else she would have been tooth & nails all the way. :) Our goal was to attempt at expanding her relatively narrow culinary horizon, and I think we succeeded. If her thoroughly enjoying the meal isn't testimony enough to Mezza's likeability, then I give up. The End.

http://www.mezzamg.com/index.html

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  1. WOW!!! We have only gotten meals to go and I'm SO jealous of that pickle plate... Going back and actually plant my butt in the seats...

    Again, I'm SO glad you liked it... We were THRILLED when we saw this place pop up (We actually were getting some lunch to go from the weekly Sony Fancy Truck visit). They are working it really hard (in the front and back of the house)

    Anyway, funny you mention the Pita, because it's a point of contention in the Dommy and P. household. I LOVE it, because as you notice, it truly lets the ingredients shine. P. misses the pull and chew of the more bready type pita. But in the end, we agree that it's good because instead getting so full on Pita... you have more room in your tummy for all the great flavors that come with the plates...

    The Kefta soon!

    --Dommy!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Dommy

      I really enjoyed the pickles. Not so overly sour like some places, and the seasoning on the cauliflower, cabbage and onions was just enough to lead into the savory range. Olives in the Middle East cuisines can be really bitter - these olives were just bitter - more to my liking. We didn't ask for more pickles but I would guess you could. :) Can't thank you enough for this rec!

    2. I was so glad to see this place get a good review. After reading the JGold review I was intrigued since I work in the area. When I saw it going in, I really wanted it to be good.

      Thanks for such a detailed review.

      15 Replies
      1. re: bsquared2

        We hadn't been in Downtown Culver City for a while and didn't even realize this was going in. We truly enjoy food with ethnicity, so the outskirts of DTCC are normally more to our liking. Up until Mezza, the closest thing to Mediterranean in DTCC was Daphne's - not even in the same universe as Mezza. When we saw that Mezza was pretty dressed up relative to say, the original Sunnin location, our thoughts were, "It's either going to be mediocre Lowest Common Denominator food like Daphne's but with a pretty dress on, or maybe - just maybe - someone is making a serious effort in bringing a nice Lebanese dining experience to this area." I'm so glad our impressions were definitely of the latter, and hope you'll find this place worthy of your tastebuds.

        Dommy! really piqued my curiosity with her brief but enticing post. As you know, she's one of those well-respected Hounds who has a strong objectivity about places and dishes, so when she posted her excitement about the fried cauliflower, I clicked on her photo link, saw the photo and literally got up out of my chair and told the family that we had a change in plans. I sometimes think there are multiple Dommy!s because her and P. cover so much of the LA food terrain - on bikes even! :)

        1. re: bulavinaka

          Aww! Your compliments made our morning! Aside from eating, we also really love to cook, so we always appreciate those who go the extra mile professionally and love to tell people about them. :) I just wish I had more time to talk about more of the places here! Hopefully by May...

          Well aside from Daphne's there is Sofra, which is Turkish (which makes it unique in the region even!!). They advertise themselves as Kabob Express.... which is why you pass it all the time without even a bit of curiosity. I would describe it as more rustic than Mezza, a bit more heavier too. But they have a few specials that are really different... We really enjoyed their stuffed eggplant...

          http://www.flickr.com/photos/dommichu...

          --Dommy!

          1. re: Dommy

            We tend to think of Sofra's/Kabob Express as a quick bite place and not really a sit down and relax place. Will have to try their stuffed eggplant. Wife likes eggplant but is picky about it.

            1. re: Dommy

              We really like Sofra - the owner is always pleasant and checks to see how our meal is. But Mezza definitely changes the dynamics of our Mediterranean food fix. We will still enjoy Sofra, but probably more for a semi-quick takeout option. We drove by Sofra on the way home last night, and my thoughts were a bit nostalgic knowing that they will now have to take a back seat to Mezza.

              1. re: bulavinaka

                I actually really like Sofra as a sit down place, particularly on the patio in winter when I am visiting LA and enjoying the actuality of sunshine....so if Mezza is a step above, well, will have to visit it soon! Of course, now that my halal-abiding daughter has moved to North Hills, I no longer have as much motivation to seek out places with halal alternatives in Culver City. (and she is not going to be happy to hear that this place opened after she left).

                Time to explore those San Fernando Valley options you mention in the opening post...and thanks so much for this report!

                1. re: susancinsf

                  I'm sure your daughter is familiar with the mosque in Culver Ciity - it's a center for the Muslim community around here as well as being a beautiful and ornate building. Mezza is in a near-perfect position to attract people from the mosque after Friday prayer. Unless otherwise noted, the meat is halal.

                  For places in the SF Valley, try Hayat's and Skaf's in North Hollywood, Alcazar in Encino and Carnival in Sherman Oaks are Chow favs in the San Fernando Valley. If Israeli is a viable option, try Hummus Bar & Grill in Tarzana (great laffa bread, amazing hummus) and Itzik Hagidol in Encino. The SF Valley and the Burbank/Glendale area have large representative populations from the Middle East and beyond. A relatively new place I've been hearing a lot of positive feedback from is Mantee in Studio City (Armenian).

                  Hummus Bar & Grill is an easy drive from North Hills - they have a lot of outdoor seating in front of the restaurant. If you hit the place in the late afternoon close to sunset, it's a nice place to sit, as many will take in the warm weather while dining.

                  Alcazar is a little further east on Ventura - they also have some outdoor seating that is very nice in the late afternoon. Cheers! :)

          2. re: bsquared2

            Wow. Went there today for lunch. The Kafta Kabob was delicious. One of my new favorite places. I liked the fact that it really felt like home cooking.

            The waitress was very sweet and the owner was making the rounds making sure everybody was happy.

            1. re: bsquared2

              I think that sense of home cooking comes from the chef who J. Gold as well as the owner mentioned that he is from a mountainous more rural area of Lebanon. His take on this cuisine is in some ways familiar, and in some ways different. And that kafta kabob is a perfect example, as was pointed out in the LA Weekly article.

              I was surprised that the waitstaff on the night we went weren't from the Middle East, which wasn't an issue as they did have a pretty strong understanding of the menu items, were very gracious and attentive as well.

              It will be interesting if and when Mezza gets a beer & wine license. And please don't forget to try the ashta.

              1. re: bulavinaka

                I'm looking forward to digging a little deeper into the menu. It was funny, there was a buzz going around the office when they opened. To me, it has a really good "slot" in the neighborhood. Now I have my Ramen place, Carnitas place, Indian, Salad, Egg Salad sandwich....Who would have thought that Culver City would become such a hot spot.

                1. re: bsquared2

                  It really is a chow-worthy area, isn't it?

                  1. re: bsquared2

                    >>To me, it has a really good "slot" in the neighborhood.<<

                    No kidding. As the title of this post suggests - a serious take on Mediterranean cuisine has finally come south of Venice Blvd, and eating around Culver City just keeps getting better.

                      1. re: mdpilam

                        Taqueria Sanchez. I just ate there for lunch today. Their Carnitas has the right "crunch" for me. Lunch for about $8 (burrito, taco and a mexican coke). That's a good deal.

                        -----
                        Taqueria Sanchez
                        4541 S Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90066

                      2. re: bsquared2

                        What's your Ramen place in CC? The only thing I can think of is Pho Show, which is OK in a pinch and not ramen....or do you venture to Centinela and go to Santouka?

                        -----
                        Santouka
                        3760 S Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90066

                        Pho Show
                        4349 Sepulveda Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

                        Centinela Cafe
                        4800 S Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90066

                        1. re: NAspy

                          Santouka. Maybe that isn't Culver City, but I was never very good with geography. Close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades is the old saying?

                          Pho Show isn't Ramen. I'm not quite sure if it is really Pho, fo' sho (Pho Sure?). Santouka is close enough for me and I work in CC.

                          -----
                          Santouka
                          3760 S Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90066

                          Pho Show
                          4349 Sepulveda Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

                2. Thank you! To both you and Dommy! We've been casting about for a new place to go in the neighborhood. Wish I had noticed Dommy's post earlier, we were at a loss where to go last night. Will have to go soon.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Jase

                    They're obviously still being discovered by pottential eaters. I thought it might be a mad house last night given J. Gold's article and Dommy!'s blurb. We rolled in around 6:30PM and it was about 80% full. By 8PM, the crowd had thinned to about 50%. When we left around 8:20 a few more diners started showing up.

                    What was significant was that a fair number of diners who were already seated and well into their meals before us continued to order more food and either left a little before us or were even still there eating after we left. That's a lot of food for a large percentage of tables.

                    For those who abide by Halal, I think only one food item - gyro - was specified as not Halal. Kind of strange to say this in the same breath, but the owner said that they are still working on getting a beer and wine license, but to feel free to BYO in the mean time. The owner is young, very hands-on, and really wants this to work with what seems to be with the best of intentions.

                    1. re: bulavinaka

                      That makes it even more of a bummer that we didn't make it over last night. I've been swamped at work and haven't caught up to latest neighborhood developments. If possible, we usually like to hit things before they get reviews and avoid the crowds or wait a good while until the initial wave has died off and they can recalibrate their service.

                      Might have to adjust plans and go this weekend while everyone is out for the Easter holiday. That's probably why it didn't get as busy.

                      1. re: Jase

                        Hey, give it a shot. Too many viable plan-b's around there if all else fails.

                  2. Awesome review, B, I'm so excited to try this place!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: a_and_w

                      Thanks. Hounds like you immediately came to mind when I started tasting the food. "Wonder if this would pass the taste test of Hounds like a and w, Dommy!, DU, et al..." I'm really curious to see where Mezza stands with you. I know you're really up on this cuisine (as well as just about everything else), and Alcazar is on your short list. Mezza won't have the breadth of Alcazar's menu (no lamb tongue, raw meat, etc.) but I think you'll find it sufficient enough to not have the same things for at least a few visits. Don't pass on dessert. Their ashta was fantastic - even without the syrup or honey. Nice balance of rosewater, richness and texture.

                    2. Wonderful recommendation. The sambousek and kafta were great, as was the spicy hummus--no pickled vegetables or olives, though (perhaps because it was late and they were out or possibly an oversight?). The only item which was a (mild) disappointment was the lentil soup--nice flavor but I prefer it thicker like they serve at Alcazar and Sham.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: New Trial

                        I'm glad you enjoyed this place. No pickled veggies nor olives? Sorry to hear that. We didn't ask for ours, so I would assume it's part of the meal. I guess folks in the future should make a point in asking for it if it doesn't arrive with the pita.

                        My wife loves lentils - she almost ordered the soup but we opted for the kibbi instead - we really liked this. She will probably order the soup next time. Thinner is okay with her, as long as the flavor is good. Thank you for describing this for us.

                        I could easily eat two orders of the sambousek. I love just about anything reminiscent of a turnover or dumpling. The Kafta was great - did you pick up on the aromatics? I can't put my finger on what's in there that's so different.

                        1. re: bulavinaka

                          I assumed it was sumac but won't swear to it. I forgot to mention the terrific za'atar with pita chips that they served at the start of the meal.

                          1. re: New Trial

                            Za'atar and pita chips? I guess that's something else to ask for. :) I was thinking along the same lines of sumac but I can't swear by it either. It's much more pronounced than what I'm used to (or maybe I've never come across a good example of it) and have never used it in cooking myself.