Restaurant review: Mazah offers great classic Middle Eastern dishes and an upbeat new setting

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From the July 10, 2014 edition

In a sense, the newest Middle Eastern restaurant in Columbus is also the oldest. And it’s one of the best.

Mazah, which closed in April and reopened recently in a vastly improved Grandview Avenue space, has family roots and recipes reaching back to a faded pioneer. That’d be Sinbad’s, a bodega-ensconced dinky counter operation that helped put once-exotic hummus onto the Columbus dining map decades ago.

This rebooted Mazah isn’t trying to reinvent the classic cuisine of the Arab world, but it is uncommonly mindful that eating those vibrant and healthful dishes should be fun. To that end, family-oriented and patio-equipped Mazah offers speedy and friendly service, genre-surpassing drinks and has even booked free live bands and belly dancers. Toss in cheery paint in colors like mango, turquoise and avocado, and Mazah’s bright, modern and roomy new surroundings are especially conducive to celebratory meals ― if loud when crowded.

Tellingly, Mazah’s name derives from an Arabic word for a festive style of tapas dining. And its self-named specialty, the colorful Family Mazah ($19), is the best way to get your dinner party started ― or finished if it’s just a few of you noshing.

This palate-popping carnival of eat-it-with-pita small plates is a skillfully made array of creamy hummus, tangy and smoky baba ghanoush, oil and zatar (an aromatic condiment of herbs, spices and seeds), chunky and minty tzatziki (homemade yogurt dip), good olives and pickles (these include pungent pink turnips and makdous ― irresistibly salty baby eggplants stuffed with walnuts and red peppers).

More modest-sized-and-priced starters include expertly fried, garlic-kissed falafel ($6) and tightly hand-rolled, zingy grape leaves ($8) starring either cinnamon-hinting ground meat or chickpeas. I’m also partial to Mazah’s Fatayer ($6), a reheated-on-the-grill homemade savory pastry with a tingly spinach filling.

These dishes find their perfect beverage partner in iced arak ($7), a black licorice-flavored liqueur similar to Greek ouzo and Turkish raki. You can also slurp arak in Mazah’s most interesting cocktail, the Zorbatini ($7). Bending arak’s licorice kick with vodka and briny Kalamata olives, it’s bracingly refreshing and potent.

If you’re not an anise fan, Mazah offers wines, like a Torrontes (crisp Argentine white) and an Israeli Cab (Barkan Classic) for $8 a glass. There are also beers (like $6 drafts of Lake Erie Monster from Great Lakes, a double IPA-zilla rampaging around 9-percent ABV), fresh-pressed carrot juice ($4) and Turkish coffee ($2.50).

Entree ordering (sandwiches are only offered at lunch) follows a value-friendly format: You pick two sides from a list of dips and salads, plus a main to play with Mazah’s excellent yellow rice, tahini sauce and pita bread. There’s consistency to Mazah’s fresh-flavored cooking too, as it deftly uses herbs, spices and lemon juice to leaven starches and enliven grilled proteins.

For something hefty, partner Mazah’s mayo-free and interesting potato salad plus its surprisingly dynamic three bean salad with either its fantastic Kefta Kebobs (sausage-y, seared and juicy beef-lamb patties perfumed with parsley, onion and allspice; $13) or its practically fatless, grill-marked Lamb Kebobs ($16).

On the lighter side, you can’t beat lean and distinctly curry-scented chicken shawarma meat ($12) served with Mazah’s vibrant and parsley-forward tabouli plus its minted Greek Salad. If it’s fish you seek, the hulking Tilapia filet ($15) ― like other entrees, it arrives crosshatched in a viscous tahini sauce ― is big and filling, if hardly thrilling. Try that with Mazah’s frisky cabbage salad and chopped fattoush salad (a texture-fest with toasted pita “croutons”).

Desserts are splurge-worthy, especially the killer Kenafi ($8) ― a nutty and honey syrup-drizzled, crispy shredded wheat pancake encasing melted akawi (mozzarella-like) cheese. Like this “Mazah 2.0,” its historical roots might be old, but it still feels fresh and wonderful.

Photos by Meghan Ralston