31-18 Broadway, Astoria, NY 11106 (on 32nd Street b/n Broadway and 34th Avenue; map); 718-777-2829; mezzeplace.com
Service: Abundantly warm and communicative
Setting: Cozy and romantic with some excellent conversation pieces in the decor
Must-Haves: Dips, pita, zucchini croquettes, butternut squash schnitzel
Cost: Mezze $5.50 to $13.50, mains $11 to $19
Compare To: Zizi Limona, Mimi's Hummus, Local 92
Recommendation: Editor's pick for a neighborhood gem, though not all dishes deliver.
"I don't think you should do that. You already have this starch, and that is so heavy on dairy. I think you want the eggplant instead. And how about a salad?"
He was, of course, right. And after sidling up next to us while we ordered, smiling all the while, boasting with such confidence about the menu's strengths, who was I to disagree?
Hummus came first, so creamy and light you might forget you're eating it, save for an arresting jolt of tahini and diminutive curls of chickpea skin mixed in to keep you grounded. The Labne is thick enough to stick a knife in upright, full of fresh tang beneath toasted nigella seeds and a grassy olive oil. They were lapped up fast with small rounds of pita (gorgeous) kept pillowy and warm in a plain brown paper bag. Excellent Eggplant Dip made for good company, and soft Spicy Feta whipped with chilies delivered a clean, addictive heat.
Cakes of zucchini bound with egg ($7) went fast; we relished their creamy texture and sweet flavor, perhaps all the more thanks to the olive oil they drank up as they fried. Burekes ($7) stuffed with feathery spinach and leeks and creamy feta beneath their flaky crusts disappeared even faster.
These are just some of the simple pleasures at Mezze Place, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Astoria with a quirky talent for vegetables, a friendly, romantic vibe, and one of the greatest chandeliers in New York. In many respects it's an archetypical neighborhood restaurant—welcoming, affordable, often quietly delicious—with some gems worth bragging about to those in farther zip codes.
Mezze Place opened last year in the wake of an abrupt restaurant closing. The business that proceeded it, Mundo, had a Mediterranean-meets-Turkish-meets-Latin-American menu that sounded like an absolute disaster but managed to charm the pants off diners—myself included—who kept coming back for more. (Mundo 2.0 is now alive and well at the LIC Flea.)
Mezze Place was up and running less than a week after Mundo closed—the former and current owners are friends—and though the new menu is more straightforward Mediterranean, the results are no less rewarding.
The decor is still attractive and romantic, dimly lit and peppered with artifacts that make great conversation pieces. I can't stop looking over my shoulder at the chandelier that dominates the space: a pinecone of wires that snake their way skywards, naked light bulbs affixed to their ends, each adorned with tiny birds' wings that flutter in the breeze.
Also intact is the restaurant's limitless warmth, an almost aggressive determination to make you have a good time. Co-owner, maitre d', and head waiter Youad Karen circles the cozy dining room like a party host, a winning smile his only uniform. He may profer suggestions about what you should order; those suggestions may, in his enthusiasm, be delivered in a rapper's cadence with an obscenity here or there. ("For dessert we have a special, rice crispies with nuts that we caramelize in house, and we top it off with vanilla ice cream and date molasses and halvah that's spun like cotton candy. I'm pretty sure you've never had anything like it before and it's fucking sick." The mic drop is silent.) There's some incredible friendliness here, and you're made to feel like a regular no matter how many times you go.
Mezze Place, as the name suggests, specializes in small dishes that are easily shared, though some are not as small as you might think. Those dips, for starters, are five bucks each, less if you order in tandem ($12 for three, $15 for all five), and generously portioned. Several vegetarian mezze are strong value propositions given their quality; meatier ones are more pricey but rich enough to satisfy. No main dish costs more than $20, and some, like a special of Butternut Squash Schnitzel, are large enough to share.
Butternut what? It's a special that may be making its way on the menu in some form, so keep an eye out. It begins with squash that's baked until soft and intensely sweet, then formed into an inch-thick square,* breaded in panko bread crumbs and Parmesan, fried until crisp, and served with black forbidden rice cooked with vegetable stock, capers, and dried cranberries. Does it work? For the most part absolutely, though I wish they'd shape the squash into a series of smaller medallions for a higher cheesy-crust-to-sweet-innards ratio. But the dish shows off the inventiveness and cooking chops the kitchen can deliver when it plays fast and loose with tradition.
* My portion at dinner was even larger than the photo here, which comes from an arranged photo shoot.
Not everything is perfect. Mundo regulars might recognize Red Lentil Kofte ($8)—patties of lentils wrapped in lettuce to be eaten with a spritz of lemon—as quite similar to Mundo's signature red sonja appetizer. Mundo's take was more fresh and interesting. Artichoke Hearts ($7) stuffed with mushrooms and kasseri cheese were bland. A salad of arugula, beets, quinoa, and grilled halloumi ($12) was refreshing and a good counterpoint to the dips, but it's nothing to get too excited about. The meaty mezze I tried left me wanting: Merguez sausages were dry ($8), Marseille Cigars ($8) stuffed with fatty short rib were low on spice and tangy balance, a tuna special arrived overcooked and underseasoned. In the future I may stick to the vegetables, hardly a burden.
But the risk of some duds that comes with ordering a wide spread of dishes is one I'm okay taking here, as Mezze Place does well to earn my trust. Stick to a foundation of dips and some tried-and-true vegetable mezze, then venture forth and see what you dig up—with prices like this you can certainly afford to. Listen to your servers and take their advice on the menu. Show some curiosity and the staff will be delighted to tell you more. Then come back and try something new.
Oh, and that rice crispie with ice cream dessert? It tastes like a frozen Middle Eastern Snickers bar. And it's fucking sick.