Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mezza - Madison

Mezza, having opened around the start of the year, is a new face in the strip malls of Madison and when I first heard of it, I had high hopes. Opening a Lebanese eatery in Jackson is an ambitious task and it’s even more daunting when it’s opened amongst the brick facades of Madison. So with a new restaurant in town, it’s like the smell of fresh cut grass and sunscreen, hot dogs and overpriced beer, there’s a new season of ball just waiting to be enjoyed. With the scouting report from For Better or For Wurst, Sam and I set out to see what a new season of cuisine at Mezza had to offer.

As you’d expect, Mezza does live up to its name and offer a nice variety of mezza or small plates. Full of all your Mediterranean favorites, the mezza section really does read like a greatest hits lineup of Arabic appetizers. Hoping to get a runner on the bases, we started with the crowd favorite, falafel.
So far it’s looking like a good at bat; the falafels have a good shape and they’re well fried.
I know the shape comes from a falafel disher but that’s a good-looking crust.
Unfortunately the lead man went down looking. These falafels may have had the looks but they were under seasoned and chalky.
With a little batting practice and salt, they might have a chance, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Next in the appetizer lineup was one of my personal favorites, the halloumi cheese. With this dish, all you need is a lot of pita bread to soak up the glorious pools of olive oil, parsley, garlic, and cheese.
Well, that’s what I was expecting. Instead, this was a few slices of halloumi cheese sliced and fried on a griddle.
IMG_1403 It was still the tangy halloumi cheese that I love, but the dish had been cut off at the knees. While this may have been an attempt to be slightly health conscious, instead it was a bland failure.

We’re up to the third batter and this dish had better be hitting for average.
It’s the house version of hummus, and just to make it extra special, I added the optional lamb. Frankly, $5 for hummus and $6 for lamb is outrageous but that’s neither here nor there.
There’s a good consistency to this hummus but where’s the seasoning? It may look like there’s parsley and sumac on the hummus but they don’t show up in the taste. As for that lamb, it did add a nice meaty flavor to the hummus but it too was missing the basic seasonings. I know I like bold flavors but this lack of seasoning was getting ridiculous.

I’ll be generous and say that the hummus & lamb got on base but only because I like lamb, even under seasoned lamb. That means, it’s time for the cleanup hitter and Mezza brought out the big guns.
Kibbeh torpedoes are one of my favorite Arabic dishes and why not? It’s ground beef with bulghar wheat, pine, nuts and a flavor to die for. Fried in the shape of a torpedo or served raw as kibbeh nayyeh, I’ll rarely turn down an order of kibbeh.
Once again Mezza has the frying down to a fine art but where’s the flavor? This kibbeh was lacking meatiness, pine nuts, and any sort of seasoning. I can understand that the diner is supposed to appreciate the flavor of the meat but this is well fried blandness again.

Needless to say, we left the first inning with Mezza leaving a runner stranded and the whole team looking rather anemic. Between innings, Sam and I debated the idea that Mezza was toning down the flavors for the Wonderbread palate of Madison. Another theory is that the chef was more concerned with presentation than flavor. I’ll admit, most of the plates so far were very visually appealing but without a good flavor, I don’t care if it looks like a damn Van Gogh.

After a quick hiatus, Mezza was back at the plate with a dish from their section of wood-fired pizzas.
I’ll freely admit that I ordered the sujuk pizza because it had sausage on it, mainly because this was the first time I’ve seen sujuk on a menu in Jackson.
Sujuk is an odd sausage. It’s smoky, juicy, and has an almost dusty texture but it’s delicious.
Unfortunately, unless I’m underestimating Mezza, the sujuk is something you buy premade. When it comes to something that Mezza made, i.e. the crust, it was another sad at bat.
Like a cross between pita bread and pizza dough, this dough was far from the crispy textural delight that I expect from a brick oven. This pizza, outside of the sujuk, just wasn’t very good.

Next in the batter’s box was a chicken shwarma sandwich.
This sandwich featured a combination of marinated & grilled white meat chicken, Lebanese pickles, and a creamy garlic sauce.
The chicken was well cooked and still juicy
and each bite of this sandwich brought the juiciness of chicken, the crunch of the pickle and the creaminess of the garlic sauce. There wasn’t any real standout flavor, everything simply meshed to create what was by far the best dish we tried that day.

For all the goodwill the chicken shwarma sandwich had fostered, it was forgotten with the appearance of the kafta kabob sandwich.
Right away, I tried the meat on its own and I knew this wasn’t going to be a very good kafta kabob. As a poor mix of beef and lamb, this kafta had barely enough flavors to stand on its own to legs but when stuffed in a wrap with pickles, red onions, and hummus, any chance the kafta had to shine was lost.

Even the hideous look of a rally cap was no match for the sad flavors Sam and I tried at Mezza. Six dishes down, we left at the end of the second inning. However, this first meal was early in the season. Mezza had only been open a few weeks. Maybe they were still suffering a few new restaurant jitters. So, with high hopes, I paid Mezza a second visit a few weeks later.

Excited to see if things had been turned around, I went right back for one of the worst plates of the first visit, the halloumi cheese.
It was a disheartening case of déjà vu. The cheese was still bland and still boring.

Maybe I had been trying the wrong appetizers. To see if I had gotten off on the wrong foot, I tried an order of the baba ghanoush.
Like so many other dishes as Mezza, this dish had the right textures. It was smooth and creamy but each bite was smoky and bitter.
The whole bowl had the acrid taste of unsalted eggplant.

Feeling extremely gullible, I decided to try the other meat centric pizza on the menu, the lahm bi ajeen.
This was described as Lebanese meat or ground beef with chopped tomatoes and onions, but it didn’t really matter. This pizza was a mess. The center was sopping wet, the edges were crispy, and the beef topping fell off if you even looked at a slice.
The whole pizza was sitting in a pool of meat juice and oil and it was just a soupy disaster. After one slice, I stopped eating the pizza and that drew the attention of my waiter. I complained about the pool of oil and juice under the pizza and he explained that was the nature of the meat and onion topping. I was dumbfounded. Of course that’s the nature of raw beef and onions, that’s why you don’t put that combination on pizza. To Mezza’s credit, he did offer to comp the pizza, but I’d prefer to pay for well prepared food than be compensated for poor dishes.

At this point, I was becoming both annoyed and desperate. Surely there was another chicken shwarma sandwich on the menu, something that would make this second visit worthwhile. In an act of desperation, I tried the grilled lamb entrée.
Again, the presentation was stunning. The hummus, the lamb, and the mixed vegetables all made for a very appealing plate.
These lamb chops were big & fatty and appeared to be quite well cooked.
It really is rare to see that much fat on a lamb chop.
Unfortunately, once again, the looks of the dish did not back up a quality product.
I enjoy a pink lamb as much as anyone but I need some char, I need a crust for the sake of contrasting textures. This was just gummy, undercooked, fatty lamb. The parsley was a nice topping but there was no lamb taste and no caramelization.

With the second visit behind me, we were past the all star break and I had all but written off Mezza. Even though I had enjoyed the chicken shwarma sandwich, it wasn’t enough to justify continued visits. Still, something in the back of my mind prodded me to pay this strip mall hide out a third and final visit. Having tried most of the mezza section of the menu, I went out on a limb and ordered the moussaka.
Soupy and simple, that’s how I would describe this dish. Actually I take that back.IMG_2007
This tasted like some watery tomato sauce with chickpeas and onions. There might have been some eggplant in there, but unlike the baba ghanhoush, there wasn’t any overpowering bitterness to let me know where it was hiding.

Taking a stab in the dark, I also ordered a serving of the batata.
Little more than fried potato squares with a cilantro-garlic paste and lemon, this was surprisingly delicious.
The potatoes were crisp and perfectly complimented by the acidic pungency of cilantro, garlic, and lemon. Sure, the sauce may quickly turn the potatoes soggy but even then, it was still good to the last bite. The batata may have been a simple dish but it was one of the best at Mezza.

After trying so much of the menu, I was tired of finding so many disappointments. For my last entrée, I went with a tried and true dish, the chicken shwarma sandwich.
This time, the sandwich came with a side of labne.
Much as before the chicken was juicy, the pickle provided a crunch and a bit of acidity and the whole sandwich was quite enjoyable. I do wish I had gotten more dark meat like the first time to keep things a little juicier but it’s a minor quibble.
As for the labne, it’s just thick yogurt topped with olive oil and little seasoning. There’s nothing special here, but it’s still a decent side.

After three separate meals, it was like September. The playoffs are around the corner and it’s coming down to the wire, but when your team is in last place, you really stop caring. I think I’ve tried enough of what Mezza has to offer and while I appreciate the effort to open a new and relatively different restaurant in Madison, Mezza really wasn’t worth my time or money. Yes, there were a few dishes that I really enjoyed, namely the chicken shwarma & the batata, but most everything else was a dizzying array of flat seasoning, poor textures and generally subpar preparation. There may not be very many options for Lebanese or Mediterranean cuisine in Madison, but I’ll happily make the schlep to Jackson for Aladdin or Petra before I head back to Mezza. In the end, I felt like I gave Mezza ample opportunity to impress and every time they went down swinging.
Mezza Address & Information
Mezza on Urbanspoon
Mezza on Urbanspoon


NMissC said...

Cynical Cook eats in Mezza (3 times!) so we don't have to.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cynical Cook said...


-I accidentally deleted your comment but I'll own up to any errors I made. For the labne, you say it was mint, ok, it didn't taste like mint to me.

For the chicken schwarma, there was dark meat the first time I got the sandwich but the second time was much drier. So there may have been dark meat the second time but there certainly wasn't as much as the first time.

Lastly the halloumi cheese, I know it's salty, I love the salinity but I prefer the way I normally see it in this part of the country, served with lots of olive oil, garlic, and parsley. This simple way very well may be the way it's served overseas and if that's the case, I prefer the other version.

Anonymous said...

Well i dont mind you deleting the comment if you really know that much about lebanese food you should know that the baba ghanoush is smokey and bitter... Plus you said that the hummus needs seasoning ? like what ? its as simple as it comes chick peas ... tahini paste lemon and garlic , and i am talking about the lebanese hummus i dunno about other spicey hummus.

Sophie Wolf said...

I'm right there with you. I've tried Mezza enough times for them to work out the kinks and every time I come out disappointed and poor. I'll keep my falafel and gyros in Jackson.

Anonymous said...

We have eaten there numerous times and have found the food to be excellent, better than say Alladin or Mediterranean Cafe. The lamb chop Valentine special was outstanding and had the sear/caramelization that seems to be missing in your report.
Last week we had the redfish special with a 'traditional' sauce that complimented the flavor of the redfish perfectly.
I suggest you come up to bat a fourth time, try one of her redfish specials and see If you don't hit a double or maybe a HR!

Anonymous said...

I do have to say, since mexxa's opening in November of 2010, I have always been impressed by it. I'm usually quite a picky eater and since i have eaten there i enjoy quite a few things. I have noticed a lot of the time the meat (lamb) isn't payed enough attention. it is merinated in an evoo base and the only seasoning added to it may be salt and pepper...i too enjoy a well seasoned meat. not necissarily spicy, but a little bit of flavor than just salt and pepper. the fattoush is by far my favorite. although sometimes is made with too much lemon. just a hint would be enough. the chicken is all white. the problem with that may have been the cook forgot to season it with the vinigar and olive oil sauce that they use to season the chicken. the sujuk, that is my favorite pizza at mezza. the crust mixes well with the cheese (which is lebanese cheese, feta, and mozzorella)and the sujuk. the bread, head chef maya, didn't want a traditional italian bread, because mezza isn't an italian restaurant. it isn't even mediteranian, it is lebanese as the Chef is from Lebanon. and Gyros is greek, as Lebanese is NOT. I used to work there, I was there before it opened. There are plenty of thing i didn't agree with, but Everything you get is how Lebanese people prepare and cook their food. You lamb shouldn't have come out rare, because Chef told me herself, she does NOT like making lamb rare. So I suggest, next time, orgering maybe a medium rare to medium. But, if you're looking for more of a commercialized restaurant who makes food based on our western coulture then go to aladdin. but if you want true, down home lebanese food, then go to mezza.

Anonymous said...

I think someone is trying to dis Mezza. This restaurant is awesome and many of my friends agree. Every time I go there I see more and more people. They are raving about the food. Don't let this blogger keep you away. Mezzo is my favorite restaurant in Jackson.

Anonymous said...

how much stuff did you order? good lord and yea it is just hummus i mean its not gonna be some amazing new thing you have not had before, sort of like when people go to does and expect some miraculous steak.. no its just a steak like anywhere else and prob overcooked or losing juice because they slice it. from what i have heard mezza is great but personally have not tried it yet.