Restaurateur Dean Hershkowitz has a novel, and savvy, approach to dealing with the increasing number of diners who are lacto-ovo, no-beef-but-maybe-chicken, Meatless-Monday, trying-to-eat-lower-on-the-food-chain, I-can't-believe-that's-tofu flexitarians. These are people who aren't eschewing meat entirely, they're just really digging vegetables right now.
He opened Meze 119 in June, billing it as "authentic Middle Eastern food with modern flair." That it is. What it may take the unobservant diner a while to figure out, though, is that it's 100 percent vegetarian. It's not that Hershkowitz is being coy. It's as he says: "A lot of the food we're making is inherently vegetarian. The fact that it's vegetarian is secondary."
His parents, Hal and Judy, are both vegetarian. Dean keeps kosher but eats meat. Together, it has always been a chore to find someplace where they can all eat happily. Hyper-aware of how dietary restrictions hamper choices, the Hershkowitzes opened Meze 119 with dishes specifically geared to vegetarians, vegans, gluten-intolerants and others. But here's the best part: If you have no dietary restrictions and wouldn't know a gluten if it bit you, Meze 119 cooks up exciting and inexpensive spins on traditional Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli dishes, all cuisines that are worthy of exploration.
It's a light, airy space, with lots of colorful pillows and a funky tree mural on one wall. Servers are warm and helpful (although we witnessed a whiff or two when identifying just which dishes were gluten-free), and the prevailing vibe is hip and upbeat.
My favorite dishes won't win any beauty contests: Spinach cakes ($5.50) bring a trio of flat, delicate patties (like something grass-fed beef might leave behind), a spin on a classic Sephardic dish that chef Jason Kingsley flavors hauntingly with an herb mixture in which lavender and dill dominate. These are served with a simple tzatziki reprised in other dishes. The other is a luscious mujadara ($5), a traditional Lebanese poor-man's dish combining lentils and rice and caramelized onion, this version elevated by the faintest hint of orange blossom water. It's rib-sticking and hearty, while at the same time exotic and surprising. Marry this last with an order of cuminy, garlicky Moroccan carrot salad ($4) for a lovely contrast of bright flavors.
Of the restaurant's many spreads, baba ghanouj ($7) and bessara ($7) are both exemplary, the latter the truest expression of pureed fava beans, with no tahini but instead a bit of roasted garlic-infused olive oil and a kick of cayenne. These are served with wonderful fresh pita, white or wheat, which also form the basis of several of the house sandwiches and serve as the scooper for stews.
Of the main dishes, a favorite is hard to choose: It could be the vegetarian meatballs (veggie crumbles bound with bulgur and flavored with Arabic seven-spice, heavy on the coriander and cinnamon; $7.50). On the other hand, the roasted acorn squash stuffed with Moroccan couscous ($8) has enough drama and curb appeal that staunch carnivores won't notice any absences.
Meze 119's wine list causes double-takes: It's an homage to the wines of Long Island, the longstanding Pindar getting top billing. Not that the fruity Pindar Winter White ($6/$21) doesn't marry well with the food, but for my money I'd opt for the house iced tea with fresh mint ($2.50), even more amazing when mixed 50/50 with the house lemonade ($3).
Meze 119 is not a large place, and with many hard surfaces it risks being noisy when filled to capacity. But perhaps a little aural discomfort is offset by the favor you do yourself by eating such tasty Middle Eastern vegetarian food — whether as part of a lifelong commitment or just on Meatless Monday.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.