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."
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.