Gather a few people to share and sample a progression of small plates and you have a modern portrait of casual dining. Assemble that scene around Turkish flavors, however, and you can see a very old and traditional view of social dining, one that’s on display at Mezze.
Mezze is a Turkish restaurant specializing in an approach to small plates long ago codified as meze (mezze is an alternate, if less-common, spelling). In the manner of Spanish tapas, meze are used in Turkey as appetizers preceding larger courses, as tavern snacks on a night of drinking or as the entire basis for a meal.
That’s not to say you can’t drop by this Mezze for a sandwich, which gets a good start on pide, a crusty, airy, focaccia-like bread. They’re stacked with lamb and beef sliced from the rotisserie for doner ($9), or filled with falafel ($8), which is flattened into patties, a move that regrettably mutes some of the crunchy edge. There are entrées, notably the Iskender doner ($17), which converts the sandwich noted above into a grand platter of sliced meat over torn pide bread, all soaked down with a thin, tart tomato gravy.
But meze is where this new restaurant makes its unique contribution to the evermore-diverse New Orleans dining scene.
The restaurant space itself is a little unusual, built around a long, narrow, covered patio in front and a second patio in the back that bookend a small dining room and a large bar. Red, blue and green lights project on the whitewashed walls and Turkish club music bounces and bops in the background. It’s a casual place, refreshingly inexpensive and open relatively late. While the staff may seem harried, they come to a skidding halt to explain the peculiarities of the Turkish menu if you express an interest.
Start with a familiar standard, like hummus ($6), a thick, coarse rendition, light on the garlic and heavy on the lemon. Then add one of the many stuffed vegetables, called dolmas. Grape leaves ($5) are the best known but there also are red pepper dolmas ($5), chilled, oiled and filled to bursting with rice, lentils and tiny currants giving a tart pop. Carrot tarator ($6) is like a deli salad of shredded carrots in yogurt dressing with a toasty flavor from chopped walnuts. Lettuce cups ($6) are filled with red lentils and chopped tomatoes, mixed like a loose veggie burger.
The hot meze tend to be heartier, and meatier. Sujuk ($6), a dense, spicy beef sausage, is cut into spears and matted with strands of melted kashkaval, the salty sheep’s milk cheese. Small kofta meatballs ($6) are rolled with bits of bread, which adds another dimension to the texture, and the lahmacun ($6) resemble open-faced meat pies with the edge of pide dough curling up like a pizza crust.
One of the most interesting meze is called palace manti ($6), which is configured like a long, coiled string of dumplings, the dough thin and a little stretchy, like a tortilla, the filling an aromatic mix of ground beef, parsley and sumac. Under a thick blanket of yogurt and tomato gravy, it pulls apart easily into bite-sized nuggets and brings to mind a plate of nachos more than anything else.
Some dishes don’t seem like much on their own, like the barbunya ($6), which tasted like chilled barbecue beans bulked up with under-seasoned potatoes and carrots. But as meze, they aren’t intended to be on their own, and as part of a rotation of dishes even the blander ones find their place as foils to the richer, more intense tastes.
Baklava is the almost automatic option for dessert. But instead try the more regal pasha ($5), with bulbs of a ricottalike Turkish cheese dabbed with sesame seed tahini paste and interspersed between scoops of vanilla ice cream like a Mediterranean sundae.
Cocktails take evocatively Ottoman names (“Sultan’s Wrath,” “Midnight in Bosphorus”) but are fairly conventional. The handful of Turkish wines are more distinctive. A white from the Kavaklidere label tastes like a dry Chardonnay; the red Yakut is bright and full.
But to fully embrace the meze mode, follow the example of the Turkish guys hanging at the bar and order raki, a milky-pale, anise-scented brandy akin to Italian sambuca or French pastis. Sternly potent yet soothing on the stomach, it’s an appropriate slow sipper for your shared, small plates supper.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.