Monday, December 7, 2009

Kaza Maza - Montreal

Wow. I seem to be uninspired by the things coming out of my own kitchen over the past few months. I mean, I’ve cooked a few things that we really loved, that will become staples in my repertoire, but mainly, we’ve been revisiting old favourites around here. Since I started leading the Girl Guide unit, my weeks have gotten that much fuller and busier. I’m still trying to shoehorn more exercise into the week as well, without destroying my back, and that’s challenging. So getting into the kitchen and mixing it up a little hasn’t felt like a priority. I’m cooking, we’re eating, but it’s not terribly exciting.

However. December is always a fun month for me to cook. Family and friends are in town; cookies need baking; Christmas dinner (which I am hosting again this year) needs to be gently tweaked while maintaining its traditional elements. I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks very much. In the meantime, here’s a review of an excellent little place that Chris and I ate at in Montreal over the weekend.

Kaza Maza is a relatively new restaurant that occupies the space where an old stamp shop once lived. The owner did all the renovations himself, and the room looks great – exposed brick walls, original strip hardwood floors, tables made from varnished surplus wood, and interesting light fixtures. The bar area is a little too brightly-lit, but the main restaurant area was OK. According to its owner, Kaza Maza was originally conceived of as a cultural space that just happened to have food. Somehow, the tables turned, when local food critics discovered that the hot and cold mezze (small plates) that make up the menu are truly something delicious to ingest. So when we stepped into the long, narrow space on Saturday night, we weren’t disappointed that there was no live music going on. The food would be enough, we trusted.

And it was. Oh, how it was. We began with two selections from the cold mezze list, each choosing one. Chris went for his current obsession, baba ganoush, while I chose my elusive friend muhammara. First to arrive, though, were some tiny and decidedly bitter green olives, a glass of Boreale Rousse beer for Chris, and an abysmal glass of red wine for me. The wine was my one serious quibble, so let’s get it out of the way now: Kaza Maza offers only one red and one white by the glass, at $4.50, and those wines come FROM A BOX. Oh, honey… no. Charge me two bucks more and buy a decent Italian or Argentinian red. I beg you. They’re not too pricey and people will rejoice. Right now the BOX is the only choice for wine drinkers who don’t want to order an entire bottle. By the end of that glass, I was wishing I had.

However, once our dips and a basket of soft pita triangles arrived, the wine was mostly forgotten in a blur of olive oil and pine nuts and pomegranate seeds and utter delight and maybe a dash of gluttony. The muhammara was delicious, slightly sweet and tart from pomegranate molasses, earthy from the roasted red peppers and walnuts, and rich with oil. As much as I enjoyed it, I think it might actually be too rich for two people to share even a small bowl. It’s better as a spread than a dip.

The baba ganoush was unbelievably delicious – smooth, smoky, and utterly flavourful, studded with red jewel-like pomegranate seeds. We didn’t manage to finish it before the hot mezze arrived, and I eyed the remains balefully as my stomach creaked mournfully. But I get ahead of myself. The first of the hot offerings, vegetarian kibbe, arrived in a small pyramid of teardrop-shaped, well-browned nuggets comprised of a crisp bulgur crust wrapped around well-seasoned spinach puree. It sounds boring but was totally addictive – definitely in the top three of the night.

The kibbe were followed by two meat dishes: lamb shank braised with eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, and pistachio kefta, a sort of rough meatball of beef and lamb with chopped nuts and spices. The lamb blew my mind in a big way – the meat fell properly off the bone and had excellent flavor, but was almost overshadowed by the incredibly soft, melting, savoury vegetables that surrounded it. I have no idea what the spicing was, but it was out of this world. I’d go back and make a meal out of that lamb.

The kefta were a disappointment to me – I found them dry and not terribly flavourful. Possibly they’re just not to my taste. Chris liked them OK, but by that time we were so full from everything else that we didn’t eat more than half of the dish.

Dessert was out of the question, sadly, as they had baklava on the menu, but we did each have a cup of restorative green tea with fresh mint leaves. We had a lovely chat with the owner on our way out, about food and commercialism and the Montreal scene.

A word of warning about the bathrooms: they’re in the basement, down a scary, narrow flight of stairs, and it is COLD down there. But we managed.

Seriously, if you go – WHEN you go – order the baba ganoush. You won’t be sorry. But skip the box wine.

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