Eleven years ago, Fady and Sally Chamoun, tired of operating Little Caesar’s Pizza franchises (and who can blame them), converted a corner deli at Detroit and Belle in Lakewood into a Lebanese restaurant named Aladdin’s Eatery (after some guy who found a lamp or something).
They wanted to serve the fresh, healthy food of their native Lebanon in a clean and comfortable environment and, 21 or so Aladdin’s Eateries later, it appears that their idea was a hit in Northeast Ohio and several other Midwestern cities. Two days before Thanksgiving 2005, the couple moved their popular concept into the upscale market and launched Taza Lebanese Grill in Woodmere’s Eton Chagrin Boulevard.
I had been anxious to experience Taza, as I’ve been a twice-a-week Aladdin’s fan for years. In fact, if it weren’t for Lebanese food, I probably wouldn’t eat anything moderately healthy ever. So, thanks to their food, I can still see almost all of the buttons on the front of my shirt. (Now, my belt on the other hand ...)
This said, I was pleased to satisfy both my craving for Middle Eastern cuisine and my curiosity with what new offerings the Chamouns had in store. And on a non-food-related point, I am pleased to note that, although Eton bills itself as “beautiful places for the beautiful people,” average-looking people such as myself are not actively prevented from visiting.
In fact, many of the shoppers and diners enjoying themselves during my visits seemed to fall generally between plain and pleasant looking, with only occasional beautiful people interspersed among us. (I was even allowed to use the beautiful-people bathroom and sit at the beautiful-people lunch counter, so Eton clearly is a place of tolerance.) But I digress.
For aficionados of Lebanese cuisine, Taza delights the instant you step through the door. Wrapping itself around lively Middle Eastern music and the din of happy diners, the delicious smell of exotic cookery lures you inside, promising the flavors of a distant land made popular here by the same affable hosts who now welcome you to their newest, grandest table.
According to Sally Cha-moun, people have described Taza as “a grown-up Aladdin’s,” and I must concur. With its full and well-appointed bar, blazing brick oven and shish kebab grill, hardwoods, opulent rust-colored textiles and Ottoman-inspired light fixtures, Taza doesn’t look like your neighborhood Aladdin’s.
To the Chamouns’ credit, though, the most notable features of their newest venture are the things they did not change: The food is still wonderful and the prices are incredibly reasonable. In fact, on each of our recent visits, my better half (who is, incidentally, beautiful) and I escaped with a bill less than $60. Being avid diners and wine drinkers, this is quite a feat for us.
The additional couple of dollars are easily justified by some upgrades in the dining experience, including Taza’s delicious, freshly baked pita bread.
Now, I generally don’t devote much space or time to vaunting the complimentary portion of a meal (mmmm ... could I have another glass of this delightful tap water?), as it usually doesn’t merit discussion, but the Chamouns are serving some seriously good flatbread. A far cry from their usual pita product (they still offer both), the freshly baked version is wonderfully soft, yet pleasingly chewy, with a great hint of fresh yeast flavor.
A basket of these wonderful breads arrives at the table still hot from the brick oven sided with olive oil, cured olives and a zahtar-flavored dipping oil. (Zahtar is a Middle Eastern blend of thyme, oregano, sesame and other spices.)
While we enjoy the warm pita and a refreshing glass of Lebanese rosÃÂ©, we ponder Taza’s extensive menu to come up with a dining strategy. Much like the Chamouns’ other eateries, Taza is open daily for lunch and dinner with most dishes available all day long.
For me, the best way to enjoy Lebanese food is by selecting from the wonderful array of mezzas (smaller plates) that also characterize the cuisine and dining habits of other Mediterranean countries. Traditional dishes include tabouli ($5.75), a salad of chopped parsley, cracked wheat, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice and olive oil; hummos ($5.75), pureed chickpea dip with olive oil, tahini (sesame paste), lemon and spices; baba ghanouj ($5.85), in which roasted purÃÂ©ed eggplant is prepared in the same fashion as hummos; and falaffel ($5.95), fried patties of chickpeas, fava beans and spices served with a zesty yet cooling yogurt sauce. All are delicious examples of perfectly prepared Lebanese specialties and perfect options for vegetarian diners.
For the brave carnivores in the crowd, Taza offers a flavorful version of kibbie nayyeh ($9), a traditional dish of raw ground lamb mixed with cracked wheat and a blend of spices. Unfortunately, due to the demands of restaurant preparation and service times, Taza prepares their kibbie using a food processor (it’s traditionally pounded out), which hurts the texture and characteristics of the meat. But other fine starters include Lebanese jibneh ($5.95), a delicious sauteed cheese that closely resembles (and probably is) haloumi, a Cypriot sheep’s-milk cheese; and, my personal favorite, fattoush ($6.95). A yummy salad treat by any estimation, fattoush ties together light, fresh ingredients such as shredded romaine, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and parsley, then combines them with lemon juice, olive oil, toasted pita chips, and, one of my favorite salad constituents, an exotic, citrusy spice called sumac.
If you have room left for sandwiches or entrÃÂ©es, Taza offers plenty of both, with many of the grilled meats serving as both kebab-style entrees and fillings in the selection of toothsome rolled sandwiches. Our personal favorites among the double duty sandwich/kebab items are the beef kafta ($7.25/$14.95), a fragrantly seasoned ground beef patty; shish tawook ($7.25/$13.95), marinated, grilled chicken served with a delicious garlic sauce; and shawarma ($7.25/$12.95), tender, seasoned strips of grilled lamb.
If you’re not in a sandwich mood and are feeling a bit indecisive, the Mixed Grill ($16.95, dinner only) offers lamb, chicken and beef kafta skewers on a bed of Lebanese rice with grilled veggies and your choice of garlic or tahini sauce (choose both).
Elsewhere on the dinner menu, we recommend the hummos shawarma ($12.95) and hummos chicken ($12.95), both layering freshly grilled meats with hummos, pine nuts, tomatoes and parsley; and the fatteh lamb ($14.95) and fatteh chicken ($12.95), similar layered affairs with grilled meats topping chickpeas, toasted pita bread, tahini yogurt sauce, pine nuts and olive oil.
Finally, Taza offers an alternating array of beautiful cakes as well as traditional Lebanese pastries such as baklava.
In all, I fear that spatial constraints don’t allow us to address the many other fine dishes offered at Taza. I can say, however, that whether dining at Taza or Aladdin’s, the food is fresh and well-prepared, the service friendly and accommodating, and the flavors a refreshing change from your everyday dining habits (unless you eat Lebanese food every day, which, for all I know, you might).
Taza Lebanese Grill, 28601 Chagrin Blvd., Woodmere, (216) 464-4000. Hours: Mon-Thu 11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m. - 11:30 p.m., Sun noon - 10 p.m. Nonsmoking.