No matter how many offbeat (to Americans, anyway) dishes a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant offers, I always wonder, "Yeah, but how about the hummus and falafel?"
Those are the old-familiars, comfort food for those of us who enjoy a taste, now and then, of foods from those other deserts so far away. And because they're so widely available, they're a pretty good test of a kitchen's ability.
But even restaurant critics can only eat so much, which forces a choice between the litmus tests and the more offbeat selections, which, on the other hand, generally are a pretty good test of a kitchen's creativity.
The answer? Mezza (or mezze), the Middle Eastern equivalent of the tapas that have become so popular (and that have come to represent a sampling of the world's cuisines). And Almaza makes it easy with its mezza sampler.
Yes, it's $42, which might seem a little excessive. Then again, that encompasses seven dishes that seemed to me to be full-sized or pretty close to it, which was a lot of food, especially for two people, and left us more than satisfied.
The best part of Almaza's mezza sampler? The vast variety of flavors and textures and colors and even temperatures. Yes, there was hummus, which was pretty good with its float of nice fruity olive oil and mellow notes of tahini, although it was a little on the bland side. There was falafel, skillfully prepared so that the chickpea paste had a truly, truly crunchy exterior, although it was a little on the bland side as well, though the dipping sauce helped with that, and the sliced tomatoes and pickles were a nice touch.
There was labne, which as a counterpoint was delightful in its blandness. This was a thick, rich, yogurt cheese, again with the float of olive oil, and I found it so cooling and soothing on a sultry evening that it seemed I couldn't get enough, dipping into it with pita again and again. There were the kibbe balls, tapered on the ends, deftly seasoned and with plenty of pine nuts for punch and earthiness.
And the baba ghanoush, the eggplant dish possessed of a deep, deep smoky flavor. And the tabbouleh, a lush rendering that combined prodigious amounts of chopped parsley and some mint with tomatoes, bulgur (cracked wheat) and more. And a plate of sausagelike rolls the name of which, scrawled in my notes, escapes me as I write, but that I remember as being slightly moist and subtly seasoned. And lots of soft, hot pita triangles to dip with and pile onto and just thoroughly enjoy.
Service throughout was fine, but then again, we didn't need much in the way of service. The mezza were brought to our table more or less at the same time, and we happily mixed and matched and ate enough that even a piece of baklava was out of the question.
We also took the opportunity to take in our surroundings, which were mostly brown, which is better than it probably sounds. A Lebanese TV feed -- complete with advertisement for a Honda dealership in Paramus, N.J., and who knew Paramus was a Lebanese outpost? -- was mostly like MTV and pretty entertaining. On either side were wall niches with ornate arches that we tend to think of as moorish.
Almaza has a large, attractive (and mostly brown -- brown leather, brown walls) hookah lounge, which sells herbal pipes but was pretty quiet early in the evening. Between the hookah lounge and the dining room are large, brown fountains that soothe as they trickle.
Yes, Almaza is pretty brown; maybe "Almaza" is Lebanese for "brown," for all I know. But all that neutrality contributes to a sense of serenity, and it forms a kind of backdrop. For the food is plenty colorful, in flavor and in texture.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.