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A New World

Aladdin goes upscale at Woodmere's Taza.

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Parsley pesto is a hugely flavorful addition to Taza's juicy ahi tuna. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Parsley pesto is a hugely flavorful addition to Taza's juicy ahi tuna.

Shawarma, baba, and tabbouleh: Once exotic, today these Middle Eastern mainstays are as familiar as chicken strips, burgers, and baked beans. Perhaps the Food Network deserves a nod for the development of our increasingly worldly palate, but for many of us, most of the credit goes to Fady Chamoun, founder of the ever-growing chain of Aladdin's restaurants.

Now numbering 21 locations (including Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago), Lakewood-based Aladdin's has not only introduced thousands to the wonders of Middle Eastern cuisine; it has done so in a casual, friendly setting, where prices are moderate, kids are welcome, and healthful options abound.

Yet that very informality tends to limit Aladdin's scope. The eateries are great spots for a quick workday lunch or a Saturday-afternoon pit stop. But when it comes time for a sophisticated night on the town, Al sometimes seems just a bit too easygoing.

Enter Taza, Chamoun and company's newest concept, which debuted in November in Woodmere's upscale Eton-Chagrin retail center. A grown-up version of the health-conscious, family-friendly, reasonably priced Aladdin's, Taza is all that -- with full bar, cloth napkins, and candlelight too.

While "casual" is still the operative word, elegant appointments and polished decor reflect Taza's more urbane personality and make it a good fit for its affluent neighborhood. Painted in a mouthwatering palette of nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon, the 110-seat room is warm and intimate, and sparkles with mirrors, granite, and iridescent tiles.

The well-stocked bar runs down one side of the room, offering cocktails and an international wine collection, including several Lebanese choices. Past the bar, behind a glass partition, chefs attend a wood-burning grill, where lamb, chicken, and beef skewers sizzle and pop. And behind the grill, a gas-fired beehive oven turns out loaves of tender pita, which are rushed to the table by friendly servers, wafting plumes of fragrance behind them.

At lunch, those freshly baked pitas arrive with a saucer of olive oil topped with za'atar (a blend of toasted sesame seeds, marjoram, and thyme), for dipping; at dinner, a passel of kalamata olives and a dollop of thick yogurt accompany the dip, serving as an introduction to the menu's large assortment of traditional mezza.

Like tapas, mezza are meant for sharing around the table, and in sufficient quantity they can constitute a complete meal. Taza's mezza include such standards as hummus, baba ghannouj, and dawali (those oh-so-buttery grape leaves wrapped around a delicate filling of rice, chickpeas, tomato, and chopped parsley), as well as less familiar possibilities like kabis (pickled turnips, olives, and cucumber); garlicky spinach, topped with toasted onion and pine nuts; and the surprise standout, soujouk -- miniature lamb and beef sausages, served in a lush, spicy tomato sauce.

Manakish bel za'atar (a thick, slightly chewy Lebanese flatbread topped with za'atar) made a delicious foil for the spicy soujouk. And parsley-rich tabbouleh added light but earthy grace notes. But we could have done with a little less bite in an order of "potatoes cilantro" -- diced, sautéed spuds, seasoned with olive oil, garlic, and cilantro, and doused in an assertively sharp lemon sauce.

Whether you make mezza a meal or just a way to whet your appetite, Taza's menu offers plenty of other temptations. At lunch, we succumbed to the ample Phoenician chicken salad, with its assortment of pristine greens, dried cranberries, chopped candied walnuts, crumbs of gorgonzola, and four exceptionally tender portions of boneless, skinless, grilled chicken breast; just the right amount of homemade herbed vinaigrette, adroitly balanced, helped pull all the flavors together into a refreshingly wholesome midday treat.

Judging by what we saw on other guests' plates, toasted pita wraps, with fillings like falafel, hummus, and spicy chicken kafta, are also popular midday noshes. Other options include a variety of skewered and grilled meats, and veggies served with a blend of rice and vermicelli, piqued with sautéed pine nuts, almond, and cinnamon. There's also a collection of handsomely plated entrées, including fish, lamb, and vegetarian mujadara, made with steamed lentils and rice.

We zeroed in on several fish dishes, with delightful results. Moist and well-seasoned, pan-seared salmon took on subtle, smoky overtones from a tahini-walnut-cilantro sauce. And a hugely flavorful parsley pesto added vibrancy and verve to samakeh seana, a thick, juicy portion of spice-crusted, sushi-grade ahi tuna, served on a bed of mellow couscous.

Afterward, smooth coffee and refreshing mint tea made worthy companions for Lebanese pastries like baklava (phyllo and ground walnuts), bird's nests (phyllo and whole pistachios), and namoura (sweet semolina dough drenched in clarified butter and baked to almost candylike consistency). Then again, towering slices of ultra-rich cakes certainly aren't without their charms. Three of us shared a tri-level slab of cassata cake as a post-dinner indulgence; while the slightly greasy frosting was a poor substitute for real whipped cream, the cake itself tasted unimpeachably fresh.

Of course, "taza" means fresh -- and coming as it does from Aladdin's family, we wouldn't have expected anything less.

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