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Mezza marvelous 

Liz Feltham finds that a visit to Beirut isn't necessary when a certain restaurant on Quinpool is so near at hand.

I'm an avid fan of Lebanese cuisine; the point-counterpoint flavours of smooth, mellow olive oils and sharp acidity of lemon juice set my mouth to watering before I've even glanced at the menu.

In the case of Mezza, my senses were tingling when I entered the front door. This is a beautiful restaurant. From the incredible carved ceiling, to the frosted doors, down to the intricate tile in the entrance, everything here says attention to detail and class. On the left: tables, booths and banquettes; on the right: private dining and toward the back a trendy bar.

After we're seated, two small nuisances make themselves known—because there is very little fabric in the room, it's loud—definitely not the place for private conversations. The lighting is all on the walls, so the menu is hard to read at tables in the middle of the room.

The menu is composed of mezza—small plates made for sharing. This is another reason I love Lebanese food: I'm happiest when I can sample many things at a meal instead of committing to one entree.

We're having the mezza platter for two ($25), laden with an assortment of hot and cold mezzet, and in addition we've asked for a stuffed flatbread, a chicken kebab and a side of rice.

Our food arrives in short order. First, a basket of warmed pita triangles appears, followed by the rest of our food. The hommus and baba ghanouj are perhaps Lebanon's most famous spreads, and these versions are outstanding. No holding back on the garlic here, and the texture of both is smooth and silky. I've never developed taste for the mustiness of the leaves in warek enab (stuffed grape leaves), but these are quite good. Not nearly as oily as some and larger than most, this blend of rice, tomatoes and parsley almost makes me a believer.

The phylo cheese (feta and akawi) rolls are light and delicious, and the two salads are hits as well. Fatouch and taboulé are classics well represented here. The fatouch is romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and peppers dressed with lemon, mint and olive oil. The ingredients are fresh and the flavours shine, as does the taste of the cracked wheat taboule.

Two large kebbe made of ground lamb, onions and pine nuts, all rolled in a blanket of cracked wheat and then fried, are the only disappointment—they are bland, and just don't stand up to the vibrant flavours of everything else.

My sister falls in love with the foul mudammas ($6), and I have to agree it's spectacular. Served warm, this moist combination of fava beans with garlic and lemon with a hint of mint, is topped with chunks of tomato and onion.

Laham b'agein ($6) is a flatbread filled with a mix of ground lamb and beef, tomatoes, onions and pine nuts. I like it best with a spoonful of the baba ghanouj. The rice ($2), though prepared simply, is fluffy and hot, a nice foil for more sharply flavoured foods.

Our last bite belongs to the chicken kabob ($5), and I have never tasted a kabob that was quite as tender and juicy as this one. Typically, the chicken, by virtue of its cooking method, leans toward the dry, but not here. These poultry cubes have been marinated in garlic, lemon and spices and cooked with an expert hand. There's no room for dessert, or the strong Arabic coffee that's offered, but that's just another reason to come back another time.

Mezza Mediterranean6386 Quinpool Road444-3914Sun-Thur: 11am to 10pmFri-Sat: 11am to midnight

Enjoy more of Liz Feltham’s adventures at: www.foodcritic.ca

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