Come summer, mezze, those small dishes drawn from a vast Middle Eastern tradition, are just about the perfect food. The flavors are vivid. Many of them are served at room temperature. No rush. I love this way of eating, a bite here, a bite there, as the conversation ebbs and flows. Plenty of time to savor each bite and pick up the thread of talk, watch the light fade, feel the night. That's the strength of Mezze, the new Middle Eastern restaurant in the former Sona space on La Cienega Boulevard, just north of the Beverly Center.
A crisp, oval flatbread spread with sautéed beet greens, their fuchsia pickled stems and soujouk, the spicy Armenian beef sausage, disappears in a flash, the flavors vibrant against one another. Baked in a wood-burning oven, the crust is flaky and crunchy, something like a pizza but different and equally beguiling. The half-dozen choices include a sumptuous version topped with labneh (thick yogurt), lightly smoked sturgeon and pickled shallots. The sturgeon is satiny and moist. I like the one with merguez sausage too, with Fontina on a tomato jam accented with Aleppo pepper.
Charcuterie comes into play too. Chopped chicken liver has a wonderfully rustic texture and taste. The liver is fresh and well-seasoned, bright with pepper and just the right amount of salt. This may be the best chopped liver ever. And there's a thick slice of pâté to eat with freshly baked pita.
There are more than a dozen mezze choices, with new ones cycled onto the menu frequently. Please, please order the spring tabbouleh, alive with masses of chopped parsley, green garlic and fava beans, more greens than bulgur, which is the way it should be. Pasta lovers should indulge in the veal manti, a close relative of ravioli that comes accented with black lime, which gives a slightly smoky, citrusy quality to the dish.
You'd never recognize the place as Sona. Designer Waldo Fernandez has opened up the room, enlarging the skylight, breaking through to the kitchen and adding an outdoor terrace in front, screened from the street by rosemary hedges. Gone is Sona's cloistered quality and hush, replaced by a lively Middle Eastern bistro. The wall treatment looks a bit dated and the chairs aren't that comfortable, but the food more than makes up for any shortcomings.
The menu from Cornell University graduate Micah Wexler is sophisticated and smart. Wexler started at Vincenti when Gino Angelini was the chef there. He's cooked at Craft in Los Angeles and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, and also worked at Mélisse and Patina.
After Italian, French and American, what's left? A lot. The world of food is large and varied. Here's a young chef, though, who's been around and looks at Middle Eastern cuisine with a fresh eye, bringing in dishes not only from Lebanon but also Syria, Morocco and Turkey. The result is pretty interesting.
Wexler is not a strict traditionalist, which gives him an advantage over myriad Lebanese and Armenian restaurants in town, which all seem to serve pretty much the same menu. He riffs on the classics and casts a wide net. Vegetable lovers will find dishes like baby gem lettuce bread salad, or fatoush with crispy pita, that aforementioned spring tabbouleh and a bowl of heirloom bean fool with preserved lemon.
And when the kitchen can use the same quality ingredients as other top kitchens in town, that's already an advantage. Wexler relies on Southern California's small growers for vegetables and greens. The favas are fresh, the lettuces perky. A woodburning oven adds a note of rusticity to the flatbreads and roasted meats. His food isn't highly manipulated, but it's alive with flavor.
A new addition to the mezze, Israeli couscous served like risotto with sea urchin on top, turns out to be one of the best dishes here. But he's also got some ideas for nose-to-tail eating, including a slow-simmered tripe dish loaded with sweet spices and crowned with falafel. Shawarma comes with house-made pickles nestled in the hollow of a hand-sized pita, a fine alternative to a burger. But I've fallen in love with shakshouka, eggs poached in a rip-roaring pepper stew.
You could make an entire meal of mezze, or at a certain point order a couple of large plates to share. There are only a handful, and I've got two favorites — the baby chicken and the lamb shoulder. The former is simply cooked in the wood-burning oven and seasoned with za'tar, the subtly alluring spice mix that includes oregano and tart dried sumac. The bird has that wonderful smoky edge and the za'tar gives it some glamour. Slowly braised lamb shoulder is suffused with an Egyptian spice mixture called dukkah, which includes cumin, coriander and sesame seeds, ground nuts and much more. The lamb is tender as can be, delicious scooped up in some of the freshly baked pita.
Mezze's wine list exhibits some wanderlust, with selections not only from California, France and Italy but also from Lebanon, Israel and Morocco. This is the chance to try a Golan Heights Chardonnay or a Moroccan rosé. Chateau Musar from Lebanon is getting up there in terms of price at $110. A good alternative might be Chateau Kefraya, also from Lebanon, at $60, or a Moroccan blend of Cabernet, Carignan, Merlot and Syrah for $36. Buy one bottle and they'll waive the corkage fee should you have something even more exotic in your cellar.
Desserts are light and lovely, notably a small dome of cheesecake made with labneh instead of cream cheese, to eat with various citrus fruits. For something more rich, try the date and amaretti parfait layered with mascarpone. And, of course, you'll have a coffee or mint tea after.
At Mezze, Wexler is turning out polished, intelligent Middle Eastern cooking. Low-key but serious, this newcomer neatly sidesteps any scene in favor of lusty cooking and authentic hospitality.