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.