Picture some friends sharing and sampling a progression of small plates and you have a very modern portrait of casual dining. But, in another example of how new trends at the dinner table often reflect old customs, you can assemble that same scene around Turkish flavors and see a very traditional view of social dining. That’s one on display in New Orleans these days at an Uptown eatery called Mezze.
This new Turkish restaurant takes its name from an approach to small plates long ago codified along the eastern Mediterranean. In the manner of Spanish tapas, meze (sometimes also spelled mezza) are used in Turkey as appetizers preceding larger courses, as tavern snacks on a night on the town or as the entire basis for a meal.
That’s not to say you can’t drop by this Mezze restaurant for a sandwich, or a more conventional entrée. But it’s with the small, shareable courses that this restaurant makes its unique contribution to the evermore-diverse New Orleans dining scene.
The restaurant space itself is a little unusual. Some people will remember it was the old Tee Eva’s, before that popular praline shop and sno-ball stand moved a few blocks up Magazine Street. Today, the restaurant is configured around a long, narrow, covered patio leading to a small dining room and a large bar.
Start with a familiar standard, like hummus. Then add one of the many stuffed vegetables, called dolmas. Grape leaves are the best known of these but there are also red pepper dolmas, chilled, oiled and filled to bursting with rice, lentils and tiny currants giving a tart pop.
Things get heartier with sujuk, a dense, spicy beef sausage matted with stretchy, salty sheep’s milk cheese. There are small meatballs rolled with bits of bread and other meze that resemble open-faced meat pies with an edge of dough curling up like a pizza crust. Then there’s a dish called palace manti, which is configured like a long, coiled string of dumplings in thin dough, filled with an aromatic mix of ground beef, parsley and sumac. It gets a thick blanket of yogurt and thin tomato gravy, and it pulls apart easily into bite-sized nuggets, bringing to mind a plate of nachos more than anything else.
Some dishes don't seem like much on their own. But as meze, they aren't intended to be on their own. Rather, as part of a rotation of dishes, even the blander ones find their place as foils to the richer, more intense tastes. It’s just part of the pattern and pace of these meals.
The bar at Mezze makes contemporary cocktails with evocative names, like “sultan’s wrath,” and “midnight in Bosphorus.” But to fully embrace the meze mode, follow the example of the Turkish guys hanging out at the bar and order raki. This is a milky-pale, anise-scented brandy akin to Italian sambuca or French pastis and it serves the same role. Sternly potent yet soothing on the stomach, it’s a slow sipper for a shared, small plates supper that’s rooted in tradition, but suddenly in synch with the trends again.
4430 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504-267-3696; mezzenola.com