Ful mudammas tastes so much better than it looks. I’m a fool for ful. The earth-tone shades of much Middle Eastern cuisine might look bland or repetitive to the Western eye, but oh, the flavors! Nine times out of 10, I’d favor a more pedestrian-looking dish of kafta, mujaddara or dolaas over an eye-popping art piece on a plate from a nouvelle restaurant.
And it’s those flavors that have led me back to Mazza often over the past five years. When I wrote about Mazza in the fall of 2000, the service and ambience was that of a fast-food eatery: Styrofoam plates, plastic cutlery, no table service to speak of and dÃ©cor that was all but invisible. Like today, it was a friendly spot in which to eat. But it wasn’t a place you’d necessarily want to dine, to loiter over a great Middle Eastern meal with a bottle or two of wine'since, for starters, no wine was available at Mazza back then.
Well, that’s all changed. Under owner and chef Ali Sabbah’s sure-handed guidance, Mazza has evolved. It’s not bigger, just better. The restaurant is still mobbed at lunch and dinner by what I’d estimate to be mostly repeat customers; I know folks who eat at Mazza weekly. But now you can drink wine or beer with your Mazza meal. White tablecloths and small votive candles give the dining room a softer, more elegant air than before. Eye-catching black-and-white photos on the restaurant’s north wall imbue the space with a gallery feel. The menu has expanded greatly in the past year or so.
But perhaps the best surprise for anyone who hasn’t visited Mazza in a while is the service: friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. If I owned a restaurant, I’d fill it with servers like Jacque, who offered up superb service to a friend and me on a recent Wednesday evening. She’s someone who knows how to “read” a table and quickly deduce whether or not her customers are looking for a quick dinner before night school or if they wish to linger for a while. In our case, the goal was to sample as much of Sabbah’s wonderful cuisine as we could fit into two hours. We were never rushed, despite hungry customers waiting for tables near the door.
It’s so tempting to make an entire meal of Mazza’s wonderful appetizer array. None are priced more than $5, and one of my favorites'lamb sfiha'is only $2.50, about what many restaurants charge for a soda these days. It’s a mini “pizza” topped with onions, tomato, lightly spiced ground lamb, pine nuts and served with cucumber yogurt dip. It’s the best $2.50 you’re likely to spend.
My friend’s eyes lit up when I told him I’d already ordered the ful mudammas ($4.50), having arrived at Mazza a little earlier to snag a seat. “It’s one of my favorite dishes!” he said. “In Cairo we used to eat it for breakfast.” Ful mudammas is a plate of slow-cooked garbanzo and fava beans'not pureed like hummus, but cooked until soft with garlic and seasoned very subtly with olive oil and lemon juice. The end product is a sort of charcoal-brown colored compote that, as I say, is so much more delicious than it might look. And speaking of hummus ($4.50), Mazza’s is as good as it gets. Just avoid the temptation to fill up so much on pita and hummus that you miss out of some of the more intriguing dishes that Sabbah has cooked up in the past year or so.
In addition to the always popular sandwiches and kebabs at Mazza'falafel, shawarma, kafta and the like'after 4 p.m., you can now also indulge in a heavenly selection of Middle Eastern entrees, all priced very reasonably. For $8.95 you can get a Jordanian-Palestinian dish called musakhan; it’s $12.95 for lamb and rice dolaas, which has become my single favorite Mazza meal. According to Sabbah, the dish is named for the lamb’s rib (dolaa). But he prefers to make his lamb and rice “dolaas” with lamb shoulder, which he considers to be more tender. Well, it’s definitely tender! Fragrant scents of cinnamon, allspice and roasted almonds waft up from the hot mÃ©lange of braised lamb chunks and basmati rice, which is cooked in the lamb’s broth. Topped with almonds and pine nuts for both flavor and texture, the lamb and rice dolaas at Mazza is nothing short of divine.
It’s also a treat to now be able to sip beer and wine alongside Mazza’s marvelous dishes. In addition to locally brewed beers from Squatters and Uinta, there are also Moroccan, Lebanese and Armenian brews on the beverage list. And Sabbah has peppered his wine list with what has to be Utah’s biggest (and probably only) selection of wines from Lebanon'all available by the glass (see Grapevine, p. 40).
It’s such a joy to see a place you like grow into a place you love. That happened for me with Caffe Molise, Martine and a few other restaurants around town. But I’m especially happy for Sabbah and the way he has nurtured his fast-food eatery, turning it into one of Salt Lake City’s most appealing dining destinations.