A Beirut festival

Mazzat's cloves, meat, and pricetag will Lebanese you smiling

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Plates of haloumi cheese and lentils with rice and cucumber yogurt sate your appetite for savory and salt
PHOTO BY RORY MCNAMARA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Mazzat used to be a deli, and some of the badges and incidents of deli-hood remain — mostly the glass cases, full of delectables, that run deep into the restaurant like a half-wall. The neighborhood setting is unusual. The old Central Freeway used to run almost directly overhead as a kind of hellish roof of concrete, but it's gone now, leaving — across the street — a large gap with an improvised garden: an open wound that's slowly healing. The setting reminds me of Prenzlauer Berg, an area of what was once East Berlin, with weedy emptiness and the memory of damage just steps away from gleaming renewal.

Mazzat (which opened in December in the old Apollo Market & Deli space) does gleam. With its rather formal look — of polished dark wood and taupe paint, inverted tulip lamps, white linen tablecloths, and a handsome wooden wine rack at the rear of the narrow dining room — it belongs in spirit to the renewed heart of Hayes Valley rather than to the whitewater river of traffic surging along Fell Street past the restaurant's front door. It also implies much higher prices than those you actually find, with the majority of items — the menu is Lebanese — under $10, and in many cases well under $10. You can enjoy a brilliant feast at Mazzat and still find yourself looking at surprisingly reasonable number at the end.

The menu includes quite a few choices you would expect to find throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including dolma, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush. The hummus ($5), served in a slanted oval bowl, was wonderful, with its potentially overbearing constituents, including garlic, lemon, and tahini (which can be quite bitter) held in a proper balance. On the side came warm pita triangles in a bottomless basket. Even better was the yogurt-cucumber dish known in Greece as tzatziki ($5); it tasted as if it had been made with whole-milk yogurt, which has a velvety quality its more gelatinous low-fat cousins can't match.

The Lebanese salad fattoush ($8) is something of an analog to the Italian bread salad panzanella, in that each is a way of making use of stale bread. In fattoush, the bread is pita, and at Mazzat, the toasted pita chunks were tossed with shreds of romaine, chopped red pepper, and bits of cucumber. It was as if a panzanella had collided with a caesar salad and the result given a tangy-sweet dressing.

Also slightly sweet were the meat pies ($6 for four), pastry rosettes filled with chopped beef that had been simmered with onion and tomato. I would have liked the filling a little better if it had been a bit less sweet and more savory (onion has surprising sweetening power, almost like carrot, when cooked enough), but it was easy to balance the sweetness with a hit of tzatziki.

On the savory-verging-on-salty part of the spectrum, there is the halloumi cheese ($4), presented as a quartet of fried chips with a slight softness and rubberiness inside. Halloumi is a Cypriot cheese, typically made with blend of cow and sheep milk, and this halloumi did indeed seem like a well-trained feta, with some of the pungency and saltiness nicely muted by the cow milk. If you like saganaki (the Greek cheese that gets doused with brandy and set on fire tableside) and can live with less theatrics, you'll like the halloumi.

There was a divergence of views on the chicken shawerma wrap ($8), a burrito-sized cylinder of lavash stuffed with chicken that smelled and tasted of clove. The party of the second part didn't care for the clove, and I understood the objection — clove has a strong personality — without joining it. The discordant association, for me, had to do with Christmas, since clove, with its penetrating perfume, is a key ingredient of mulled cider, a holiday favorite. On the other hand, the presence of clove meant that the wrap (with its flatbread skin nicely pressed and warm like a freshly ironed shirt) would never be mistaken for a burrito.

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