On last week's HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David and friend quietly sneak off to a 'Palestinian' roasted chicken place, the fictional Al-Abbas (in real life, it would probably be the glorious Lebanese-Armenian Zankou -- if anything is real these days), figuring they would never run into anyone (Jewish) they knew, only to encounter a plethora of friends. When I was young(er), I spent a lot of time traveling in the Middle East on Cinerama film business, especially to Lebanon, Turkey and Israel. (Once I tried to visit Syria but the customs official at Damascus saw my passport stamp from Israel and denied me entrance.) In those days, Beirut was called 'the Paris of the Middle East,' a terrific food (and gambling and carousing) city. I was reminded of all this when I dined at the wonderful new restaurant, Mezze (401 N. La Cienega Blvd, L.A, just north of Melrose, (310-657-4103)), where we enjoyed several delicious meals of fairly authentic Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food. Mezze loosely translates to 'sharing of little dishes' in Arabic, much like the tapas-small plates craze which has surfaced in all cuisines 'round the world.
Here, where the austere Sona once resided, the new owners enlisted the talents of amazing designer Waldo Fernandez (Soho House) and created a small wonderland with open kitchen and natural light from a wide skylight. The large 'rock' in the Sona dining room is gone (with much difficulty) and casual elegance prevails. (I'm told the rustic floors are crafted from repurposed woods from Lebanon, while the colorful tiles are from Morocco.) There's a dark and intimate bar and a nice patio, as well as a private room. Chef Micah Wexler, whom I first met at Craft, has joined with fellow Cornell hotel school alumni Matt Bendik and General Manager Michael Kassar (Spago), along with David Koral, to form the entity which opened it. Wexler, a Valley boy who also cooked at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Manhattan, has fashioned a fascinating menu which draws upon his travels and cooking experiences in Israel, Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean, including Morocco. He said that the season and local farmer's market produce will dictate the daily menus, but don't expect the usual mezze appetizers -- no hummus, baba ghanoush, rice-stuffed grape leaves, staples of all Lebanese-Armenian restaurants.
Rather think the ridiculously delicious starter he calls Grandma's Chopped Chicken Livers ($12), a version of this traditional dish which would have made my grandmother (and that of Nate 'n Al's) weep with envy. It is served with a whole, small, freshly baked loaf of egg bread, challah, of which one can never get enough. There is always a raw fish crudo on the menu, one night it is local halibut ($15) served with salade cuite and tomato vinaigrette, with toasted pine nuts and cherry gremolata. Shawarma ($11) are grilled beef pita sandwiches with a tart mango-like spice, amba, and house pickles. I once attended a dinner at the royal palace in Morocco, but I don't think the King would serve these delicious Braised Moroccan Chicken Wings ($12), although he should. My favorite, Israeli Couscous ($14), topped with strips of golden sea urchin (the caviar of the sea) and drizzled with Meyer lemon. My guests enjoyed a Summer Tabouli ($12) of corn, peppers, Pancetta, almonds... but I centered on a unique dish little seen elsewhere, Shakshouka ($13), a sort of poached egg stew with a yogurt emulsion, morsels of sweetbreads, with pita, the epitome of the confident, unique cooking that Chef Micah is doing. So many wonderful mezze: Beet Salad, Wild Salmon, Foie Gras Terrine, Lamb Paté, Beef Tartare, Blue Prawns, Tagliolini, Veal Sausage, Roasted Quail.
Of course a full complement of flatbreads, the puffy pizza-like-but-different breads from the oven; we dug into one with house-made merguez sausage ($18) and tomato jam, with Aleppo pepper drizzled on top. Yet to be tried is the Smoked Sturgeon flatbread ($16) and a Salt Cod version.
Even Larry David would be happy with the Baby Chicken (actually Cornish Hen)/Poussin ($26) from the wood-burning oven, sprinkled with z'atar, a spice of herbs, sumac and sesame seeds. Golden skin, juicy meat, a deeply satisfying dish (although I and manager Michael are the two out of a hundred diners who like their chicken on the even juicier, rare side). The chef, aware of my predilection for braised, simmered tripe, prepared a small dish of it for me... no one at the table would even sample it; 'tis a pity, topped with falafel, it was delicious. We all dug into and quickly demolished the large plate Lamb Shoulder ($27), a meltingly soft piece of flavorsome meat served atop smoked oats and sprinkled with the Egyptian Dukkah spice. Not to be neglected are a quartet of side dishes (all $9): White Corn with Moroccan spice, Butterball Potato with Green Chile (spicy but tasty), Heirloom Bean Foul (can be skipped), and Summer Squash Gratin, very good. The Pastry chef prepares a unique take on cheesecake made with labneh instead of the usual cream cheese, but last night it was the date-and-amaretti parfait flavored with mascarpone cheese which won the table.
My first dinner saw me joined by the filmmakers of the new soccer movie, Will, director Ellen Perry and co-producer Zack Anderson (it opens in London at a gala on October 16th), as well as my dear friend Ann Goursaud, a legendary film editor/director/writer who regaled us with the tale of her directing Mickey Rourke in Another Nine Weeks. We all stopped to sniff at the jars of spices lining the wall beside the stained glass entrance doors. Cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, coriander, dried limes, star anise and so many more. Promise of exotic things to come. 29-year-old Chef Wexler and I discussed his first mentor, Chef Gino Angelini at Vincenti, since I had spent the previous evening with Gino, Betty Jane and daughter Sarah at the American Cancer Benefit. They offer a fabulous selection of original cocktails and an intriguing boutique wine list, although I brought a bottle of Justin Wine's sensational 2008 Isoceles to share with friends and staff.
Travel to the Middle East can be pretty dicey and even perilous these days (apart from Israel), so if you crave a visit there, why not head down to this Mediterranean town house on La Cienega instead and indulge your exotic senses with some delicious and deeply satisfying albeit different food. You might even run into Larry David there.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at email@example.com.