When it comes to inspiration, New American chefs draw from a wide swath of influence. They look to France and Spain, Korea and Mexico. We have gastropubs and tapas bars, and we've gone from wasabi mashed potatoes to kimchi grits. Years ago there was a rush of Pacific Rim restaurants; lately South America looms large on the scene.
But rarely the Middle East. And why? There's hardly a cuisine more warming, more exotic and yet comforting, more well-suited for the melting pot of New American cuisine than the food of the Arabic world.
At Mezze, chef Micah Wexler is proving just that.
Culinarily, it was a long journey for Wexler to get here. His Jewish upbringing in Los Angeles gave way to American and European training as he cooked his way through some of the best kitchens in Europe and the United States. His résumé includes stints in Spain, Italy, back home at Spago, in New York at Robuchon and back to L.A. as sous chef at Craft.
But it was a kernel of an idea from his time at Cornell's hotel school that ultimately led to Mezze. At Cornell, Wexler met Mike Kassar, who later would become his business partner at Mezze. Kassar's Lebanese heritage, coupled with Wexler's upbringing eating Sephardic cuisine, provided inspiration for a student dinner the two prepared; looking to do something other than "the same old shit," they branched out and cooked a modern Middle Eastern meal. Wexler says the idea was in the back of their minds ever since.
And so when Mezze opened in West Hollywood in March 2011, in the spot formerly home to David Myers' Michelin-starred Sona, modern Middle Eastern is what the pair served. Still, Wexler defines Mezze as a Californian restaurant. The flavors of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Morocco guide his efforts, but like most great New American cooking, there's a playfulness and fluidity here that keeps the food from being defined as traditional in any way.
In other words, you won't find hummus on the menu. The tabbouleh has almonds and bacon in it, and the falafel comes over a warming braised tripe stew. Couscous is topped with sea urchin — a combination that shouldn't work but does, the sexed-up saline funk of the urchin playing beautifully with the lemon and mint in the couscous. It's a dish with a taste memory so vivid it stays with you for weeks.
The urchin over couscous is perhaps my favorite dish on the menu, but it has a lot of competition. The hashweh risotto, a mash-up of the traditional Lebanese rice pilaf and the creamier Italian rice dish, is pure exotic comfort, the rice intensely flavored with lamb, burnt onion and bright lemon.
Bread is also a serious strong point, baked in-house by pastry chef Morgan Bordenave. The pita is impossibly light and fluffy, and an entire loaf of gleaming challah comes with the chopped chicken livers, a serving so generous it should rightfully be split among four. But the liver's creamy, rich, subtly spicy allure and the challah's soft sweetness is enough to trick you into eating way too much, filling you up before any other dish has appeared.
Which would be a shame. There is barely a dish on the menu worth passing by, and if I'd caution you to stay away from anything, it's only because there are other things more worthy of your attention. I liked the flatbreads, especially for the bread itself and particularly the smoked sturgeon version, but I'd rather eat Wexler's more creative dishes. And the "Syrian rebel fries" are one place on the menu where I feel the kitchen gets a tad too cute. It's a take on poutine or disco fries, loaded with beans, brisket and string cheese. It's tasty, but the dish's fat-kid aesthetic seems out of place on a menu that is otherwise restrained in all the right ways.
"Mezze" is, of course, a word that means smaller, sharable plates of food, and that's where the focus is on this menu. Many of the smaller dishes are quite filling, and it's easy to order too much food even when staying away from the larger plates, of which there are usually three to choose from.
But the entrées are equally delightful. The whole pink snapper with fava beans, sugar snap peas and Persian mint is a subtle ode to a Mediterranean summer, the sweetness of the favas and peas giving the fish's white flesh just the right pop of flavor without distracting too much from its simple goodness. A Cornish hen dish recently gave way to quail, which come halved and arranged on the plate, legs flung in the air like a line of delicious Rockettes. Cooked to a smoky, juicy ideal in the wood oven, the plate is garnished simply with pickled corno di toro peppers and sumac-marinated onions.
I'm grateful for a wine program that takes Lebanon and Israel seriously, and it's those wines on the list that make for the best pairings. I especially loved a 2010 Musar rosé from Lebanon, the nose with the faintest hint of rubber, the finish like sherry. Cocktails are impressive as well — sous chef Jonathan Whitener runs the program, and his cheffy aspirations make for some fun in the glass. His savory cocktails are particularly striking, and if you like pickles, you'll love the Deli Juice, a mix of gin, pickle juice and mustard seed, with the slight sting of serrano peppers on the finish. But he's just as good with sweeter concoctions, like the Sumac 75, a fizzy pink pomegranate affair with a hint of sour sumac to balance it.
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Complaints? I have very few. I've seen the service staff become overwhelmed, slow and disorganized on evenings when the restaurant is unexpectedly extremely busy. One Sunday evening, it was obvious the full restaurant was a surprise, and the floor was understaffed, our waitress overextended as a result. The kitchen, however, didn't miss a beat, and the food was as good as ever.
I'm not a huge fan of the room itself — I'd prefer something more intimate than the tall ceiling and mustard walls. The décor is the only part of this restaurant that seems to be trying too hard to fit into its Middle Eastern theme, and this stretch of La Cienega, across the street from Trashy Lingerie and next to an ugly construction zone, is a particularly unfortunate location for a restaurant with glass doors that open all along one side of the room onto the street.
Ah, but with a glass of Lebanese rosé in your hand and sea urchin and couscous on your fork, the wine amping up the briny aftertaste of the food, the breeze from those open doors smelling of a cool summer night, you are just happy to be exactly where you are: smack in the middle of L.A., with a whisper of the Middle East on your palate.
MEZZE | 401 N. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. | (310) 657-4103 | mezzela.com | Sun.-Thurs., 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-1 a.m. | Mezze $9-$17 | Reservations accepted but not required | Full bar | Street & valet parking