I'd heard the management had changed atMecca Grill
, a once-popular Lebanese restaurant in a tiny strip center in Washington Park, so I dropped by for dinner, curious to see if the new owner was going to give me a reason to come this way besides my usual detour for cheap(er) gas at the Bradley station across the street. The space looked as tired as always, with dull burnt-sienna walls and metal-edged chairs that have seen better days. The menu, too, seemed short on inspiration, with the same Middle Eastern playlist you find all over town. But looks can be deceiving.
See also: A Closer Look at Mecca Grill
The restaurant is, in fact, in the midst of a transformation, and new paint -- a color has already been picked out -- is only the beginning. Purchased last spring by a Moroccan family, Mecca Grill is on its way to becoming a broader Mediterranean restaurant. "I will add the best plates from Morocco," says owner Amal, a native of Casablanca and mother of three. The Lebanese fare will stay, too, because "it's good and so close to my cooking." Amal doesn't want her last name used, and her husband, Hassan, a website developer with an MBA who is helping her get the business going, explains the reason for her reserve: "It's her culture," he says. "She doesn't want to be in the spotlight."
Amal might be shy, but she's full of enthusiasm when talking about why she wanted to open a restaurant. "Oh, my God, I'm crazy about cooking!" she exclaims. The original plan had been to start her own Moroccan restaurant, but when she learned that the previous owners of Mecca Grill, who were acquaintances, were interested in selling, she made an offer. After some delay, it was accepted -- while she was en route to the hospital to have her third baby. "I told my husband, 'We'll get to the baby first, then the restaurant,'" she recalls with a laugh.
Given the timing, Mecca Grill's transformation has moved slower than hoped. Amal hired a Lebanese chef to develop a menu -- recipes were not included with the purchase -- and to train her and her father, who shares responsibilities in the kitchen. She's hoping to add Moroccan specialties such as handmade couscous, bistilla and tajines within six months. But don't wait until then to visit: Mecca Grill may be run by Moroccans, but it's turning out some tasty Lebanese dishes.
My favorite, and the favorite of Hassan, too, is the chicken shawarma, which is offered as a plate or a sandwich. Marinated and cooked in yogurt, the chicken arrived in a generous heap, with remnants of sauce clinging to the thin, tender strips like Alfredo on noodles. Tinted orangish-yellow from turmeric, a key ingredient in the Moroccan seven-spice blend added to the marinade, the sauce had a complexity that would draw me through the door -- even if I weren't already nearby to fill up the tank.
When family members come to visit from Morocco, Amal asks them to bring her spices, because she likes the stronger flavors available there. Perhaps this is why the lamb shank is such a standout. Made with more of that seven-spice blend, it had the warm flavor profile that Americans associate with baking spices, given the blend's cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Cooked low and slow for hours until the meat flaked off the large bone and the zucchini, carrots, tomatoes and green peppers softened and formed a gravy, the dish was Middle Eastern comfort food. My only complaint was its price: At $15.45, it's one of the most expensive items on the menu, and I would have liked a second shank. Or at least chairs that didn't have remnants of food on the seats and water glasses that got refilled.
Like most entrees, the lamb shank was served with a side of hummus, rice, pita and salad. Somehow we'd missed that in the fine print, and the server neglected to warn us of potential redundancy when we ordered a separate hummus appetizer. But the chickpea spread was so creamy, the undercurrent of housemade tahini pairing nicely with the fruitiness of the extra-virgin olive oil moat, that we were glad for every scoop. The pita isn't made in-house, so I wasn't tempted to nibble it plain as I do at spots that make their own, but it worked fine as a vessel for soups and spreads.
We doubled up on falafel, too, but this time on purpose: While it came with my vegetarian combo, we knew the portion wouldn't be enough to satisfy all the falafel-lovers at the table. Adding the appetizer meant each of us got our share of crisp, domed discs, scented with cumin and pleasantly grainy inside from the chickpeas. And who would have guessed that we should've ordered two bowls of the lemony fava beans? They'd been cooked until some of the beans disintegrated to thicken the soupy dish, and after just one bite, it was clear why fava beans are a common Middle Eastern breakfast food. If only Mecca Grill were open earlier in the morning, I'd be happy to start my day with pita dunked into a flavorful bowl of beans.
The vegetarian combo was a terrific value, with falafel and hummus as well as smoky, hand-mashed baba ghanouj; tabouleh that was heavy on parsley and light on bulgur, as it should be; rice; pita; and grape leaves. The platter didn't include the fatoush listed on the menu, however; I had to order that another time in order to try the fried bits of pita tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes, romaine and fresh mint. There were other inconsistencies: Despite what the menu says, my Sultani kabab entree didn't include a lamb kabab, and what should have been a sandwich of lamb-and-beef shawarma was made with beef only. And while the meat combo came with a skewer of moist chicken kababs, a skewer of equally tender beef kababs and several slider-like patties called kafta (two from ground chicken and one from ground beef), on two occasions it lacked two items -- the shawarma and lamb kababs -- specifically promised on the menu.
Such oversights could be explained by the steep learning curve. "Things aren't going as fast as we wanted," admits Hassan. "We're basically getting the kinks of the business going." But a year into the process, other kinks remain. Sometimes there's only one person in the restaurant, doubling as server and cook. Once, the extra-virgin olive oil accenting my hummus was replaced with what tasted like vegetable oil. A gyro sandwich contained such thick squares of processed meat, it stayed on the table uneaten.
But when Mecca Grill works, it works well. We had no trouble finishing the baklava, made in-house by Amal, who took pastry classes in Morocco. Packed with walnuts and dripping with honey, it was a classic rendition that made me eager to see what she can do with the almond cookies and other Moroccan pastries she's planning to add as the transformation unfolds.
Selected dishes Chicken shawarma $12.95 Lamb shank $15.45 Meat combo $14.95 Sultani kabab $13.95 Vegetarian combo $12.75 Hummus $4.75 Side of falafel $4.45 Fava beans $5.95 Gyros sandwich $5.25 Baklava $2
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