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DINING OUT

Tasty Middle Eastern fare at a leisurely pace

Mezza

6 Elm St., Nashua

603-883-4224

Tuesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday

Visa and MasterCard accepted

Handicap-accessible

Looking to branch out beyond Italian, Chinese, and Mexican cuisine? The Middle Eastern fare at Mezza is an excellent alternative for those looking to expand their culinary horizons without shocking their taste buds.

Mezza's vibrant flavors are mild enough for mainstream palates, yet tremendously satisfying even for those given to more adventurous dining. We ate abundantly during two recent visits to this newcomer to downtown Nashua, and not a single dish was a miss.

Mezza's menu is dominated by mezze, appetizers in the Lebanese, Greek, and Turkish tradition. In fact, appetizer offerings far outnumber entrees, including three ``mezze for two" options, each an array of six appetizers for sharing ($28-$34).

Two of these mezze combinations are heavy on lamb-based dishes, while the third is meat-free.

Unsure whether we would be satisfied by a meal of appetizers, we ordered the vegetarian mezze for two ($28) along with an entre e to share. Filling the table, the six mezze alone certainly would have sated us.

This culinary extravaganza included a few familiar favorites, such as tabbouleh, hummus, and stuffed grape leaves, each of which was very well executed. The tabbouleh was heavy on the vegetables and light on the bulgur, and both it and the stuffed grape leaves were thoroughly infused with the zing of lemon juice.

Also on the table was cool and refreshing leben, a yogurt and cucumber sauce perfect for dunking the provided pita bread, along with two types of dumplings: fatayer bi jiben, featuring meltingly soft tangy cheese and fresh mint, and fatayer sabanegh, filled with spinach, onion, lemon, and pine nuts. Both dumplings were hearty, savory, and filling. All mezze are also available as stand-alone appetizers, generally costing $5 to $7.

Delightful as the mezze were, they in no way upstaged the entrees. Lamb and chicken feature prominently among the fewer than 10 entrees on the menu. The shish taouk ($15), skewers of lemon-marinated chicken that arrived at our table so fresh from the grill that an orange ember still glowed on the tip of one of the skewers, struck the perfect balance between flavorful charring and succulence.

Garlic fans, take note: The melt-in-your-mouth chunks of chicken were served with an outstanding garlic paste that was heady with garlic overtones yet surprisingly mild in overall flavor.

The lamb shawarma ($20) featured thin slices of delicately flavored lamb; cooked medium rare, the meat was very juicy. Both this dish and the shish taouk came nestled between two large soft pitas, accompanied by wonderful grilled mushrooms, peppers, and onions.

The sultan mashawi ($23) combined char broiled chunks of chicken and lamb on a bed of mild red onions and parsley; again, both meats were masterfully cooked.

All entrees are served with particularly delectable rice, studded with toasted pine nuts and pistachios. I'm not usually a big rice eater , but I happily wolfed down this nutty, fragrant preparation.

Mezza's portions were so generous and the food so satisfying that I could sample only one of the three dessert options, baklava ($3).

The pastries of honeyed nuts in filo dough were excellent, but what really made this particular baklava special was its unexpectedly sublime side: a small cup of rose water.

Mezza's decor is pleasant, although the vinyl-clad booths and other furniture are rather pedestrian. The walls are an attractive pumpkin color, and the table settings are handsome. Glass-roofed areas around the edges of the dining room are fitted with faux grapevines, which lend a pleasant arbor feel.

With liberal sampling of the all-too-inviting mezze, the dinner tab for two can easily climb above $50.

The pace of dining at Mezza tends to be leisurely, which the menu describes as typical of mezze-based dining. The duration had nothing to do with the service, which was competent, or with the crowds, which were sparse (one Wednesday evening at 8:30 we had the restaurant to ourselves).

Rather, the dining experience at Mezza unfurls agreeably slowly, each course seeming to give way gracefully to the next. It's not the place for a quick in-and-out dining experience, but it is an excellent choice for outstanding and authentic Middle Eastern fare prepared with great care.

STEVE BRADT

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