Cedars Mediterranean Mezza. It sounded so romantic. I could imagine it immediately. A cozy, crowded room filled with loud voices and even louder music. People laughing and toasting. "Opa!" Glasses of ouzo clinking and plates shared among tables. Mezze or mezza-style meals, like tapas, small plates with rich aromatic foods. The smell of olive oil, garlic and charred lamb filling my nostrils the minute the door opens.
A heavyset woman in a babushka would welcome us in, wiping her hands on her white apron and then putting one arm around us each, "Welcome, welcome," she would say. "What are we eating?" We ask her to surprise us. And she does. Plate after plate of falafel, kibbeh, spanakopita, saganaki and more. Food from all over the Mediterranean as their site boasts, Spain, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Greece. The flavors so rich we forget where we are and when we should stop eating. I couldn't get in the car fast enough.
And then we pulled up to the restaurant. It was early on a Saturday night when we parked in front of the North Dallas eatery in Preston Center. Didn't look like much. Then again, some of the best food I've eaten has come from strip malls and the streets. We opened the door but the people behind the counter stared at us blankly. All but two of the tables were empty and no one came to seat us or greet us.
Cedars Mediterranean Mezza
Cedars Mediterranean Mezza Build Your Own Platter: Three sides and one meat $11.99 Falafel (four pieces) $2.99 Chicken kebab with rice $5.99 Gyro $5.99 Coriander potatoes $5.99 Large order Spanish paella $9.99
"What do we do?" my husband whispered as if afraid to disturb the quiet. The place was silent but for tinny Middle Eastern music playing softly in the background.
"No idea," I said, taking stock of the buffet line that ran cafeteria-style the length of the restaurant. I approached the counter and read the posted signs. There was a sea of choices. You can order a pre-designed platter, including the Lebanese Basha (tabuli salad, hummus, pomegranate eggplant and a carved shawarma); The Moroccan Prince (oasis carrot salad, caraway couscous, walnut green beans and a seafood kabab skewer); and The Turkish Sultan (Turkish minty salad, Babaghanouge, Basmati rice and a kabab skewer). Or you can order larger individual portions a la carte, choosing from dozens of selections. Or you can build your own platter—one, two or three sides with or without meat. Or you can order from a list of six appetizers. Meanwhile, in front of me, behind the scalloped panels of glass, were trays, bowls and platters overflowing with everything from dolmas to Greek salad to peppered eggplant salad.
A challenge to the indecisive.
I stood for a minute, reeling with doubt, smiling politely at the twenty-something girl behind the counter, who barely smiled back. Then I walked the length of the buffet, where at the end you can request made-to-order gyros, kabobs, Greek pizza, shawarma and alambres.
I returned back to the starting point. "So do I just pick, or what?"
"Mmm hmm," she hummed, failing to allay my confusion. With no help forthcoming, I decide to order safe: the falafel platter to start, and then I just pointed to six different salads and dishes, which she scooped onto my plate. At the end of the line I ordered a chicken skewer and a gyro. My husband selected his own sides and grabbed some pita.
No clue how they rang it up, because we didn't adhere to the platter options. But the price seemed reasonable, so I just paid and took a seat, our order number perched on silver stand for subsequent identification.
The Cedars' location is well trafficked, and the owner, Nabil Dimassi, comes from strong Mediterranean-restaurant stock. Brother of Houstonite Fadi Dimassi (who owns Fadi's), Nabil actually opened a couple of the Fadi's locations in Dallas before opening Cedars. Even with that in mind, and even if my travelogue fantasy was over the top, I expected more charm and less high-end cafeteria.
It's a relatively big place with oversized windows that fill the space with sunlight. Tiny silver candleholders with aqua-blue beaded shades adorn the marble-top tables. The ceiling is trimmed in blue, the walls accented with blue tile mosaics. Banquettes with black leather seats and blue velvet rolled cushion backs flank the room. I just didn't get it. Seemed as though they were going for a hip, upscale, eatery, but I felt like I should be eating a club sandwich. And where was Maria Portokalos?
The falafel, served with pickles and tomatoes, was crispy, hot and palatable but on the dry side. A dollop of the fresh, yogurt-flavored sauce helped temper the dryness. It tasted like the hummus, which had little flavor beyond its bland chickpeas.
I had noticed the lamb on the rotisserie behind the counter, which also looked dry. But charred can be good, so I decided to give it try. I should have gone with my first impression. The roasted potatoes were probably the best side dish we tried. They were crisp and fresh and tasted of coriander. I also enjoyed the chicken kabobs—something juicy, finally, and subtly seasoned.
There was another noteworthy dish: "Is that meatloaf?" my husband asked the counter girl when we ordered, pointing to what looked like ground meat in a thick sauce. "Yes," she said with the same terseness expressed by the rest of the staff. They weren't rude. They were just sort of invisible. No smiling. No chitchatting. No "Opa!"
We called it Mediterranean meatloaf because it was not the sort of dry loaf of ground beef that's a staple in so many American kitchens. It was rich and flavorful, though we couldn't get any details about its ingredients. And we enjoyed the tabuli, which was fresh and minty. They also offer an interesting couscous dish with grilled chicken, onions, carrots, pepper, herbs and olive oil that's a bit like a revved-up tabuli.
The baked pita came fresh out of the stone oven, but the wheat and the white versions were too thin and crisp. Other missteps included the mussels in the paella, which didn't open, and the cauliflower, which was crunchy but would have been better had it not been served at room temperature. We tried a lot of dishes, joined by my daughter and a friend on another visit.
The dessert counter was filled with dense, flaky baklava, dates filled with nuts and hard cookies filled with pistachios. We ordered one of each. The dates were terribly cloying, and the cookies were too hard. We also ordered the specialty of the house, the baklava ice cream dish that we were told feeds two, but easily feeds four. The dessert consists of two giant pieces of baklava, chocolate ice cream, strawberries, bananas, nuts and Hershey's syrup.
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The baklava—served warm—paired well with the ice cream and the fresh fruit. The nuts added an enjoyable crunch but the Hershey's syrup seemed kind of sad. Messing with baklava like that seemed like a mistaken attempt at Americanizing a perfectly good dessert.
The offerings were changed up a bit when we returned for a second visit, this time on a Saturday afternoon. Four men sat watching hockey on the plasma TV hanging on the wall. I wanted them to be Greek mafia, watching soccer, arguing loudly. So much for my Mediterranean travel fantasy—turns out they were Hispanic.
Truth is, there are expectations for a place that bills itself as a Mediterranean eatery: You hope for an experience, not a cafeteria-line. The name, the owner, the whole idea of the place had me expecting something more authentic. But the reality of Cedars was nothing like I had in mind. Ethnic food stripped of its ethnicity doesn't leave much to the imagination.
Cedars Mediterranean Mezza 6125 Berkshire Lane, 214-363-1717 Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. $-$$