If you live and work in the city, as I do, there aren’t too many reasons to trek out past I-275. And finding something to eat usually isn’t a sufficient enough excuse to make the drive.
But when I kept hearing about a restaurant that serves superb, authentic Lebanese food in a strip center in a suburb I consider far from home, I decided it was time to make an exception.
Phoenician Taverna in Mason has established a glittering reputation in its half-dozen years of operation, recently turning up on local top 10 lists with downtown and Over-the-Rhine establishments helmed by famed chefs with names like “Salazar,” “Falk” and “de Cavel.”
OK, let’s go.
Despite the assistance of a GPS, my urbanite dining companions and I still got lost trying to find Phoenician Taverna’s Mason Montgomery Road address. But we eventually got there just in time for a 7 p.m. reservation.
The restaurant sits near one end of a generic row of shops and services. Its tidy dining room consists of tables, booths, a bar where we noticed a couple of solo diners, and an open kitchen. Owner Wassim Matar greeted us at the hostess stand and showed us to a booth near the back.
It was a slow Thursday dinner service — Matar said they’d had a super busy lunch and were slammed the previous night, but we happened to hit at a quiet time.
My companions and I all love Mediterranean flavors, but we weren’t familiar with the Lebanese names of the menu items and it took a while for us to process the enticing descriptions. We went one menu section at a time, settling on an array of appetizers before tackling our main-course options.
Appetizers, or “mezza” on the menu, are listed in three sections: cold mezza vegetarian, hot mezza vegetarian and not vegetarian.
We decided to try one from each category. I asked our server whether we should go with their version of baba ghannouge — a smoky eggplant dip with lemon, garlic, tahini, pomegranate seeds and olive oil — or a less familiar (to us) m’hammara (walnut) dip ($6.75). He didn’t hesitate for one second: walnut dip, he said — a house specialty. And what a good call that was.
The dip, more of a spread really, contains ground walnuts, roasted red pepper, onions, spices, pomegranate reduction and plenty of olive oil. Lathered on a hand-sized hot pita straight from the oven, it was heavenly.
What struck me about this first morsel of food I tried at Phoenician and most of everything else we ate was the subtlety of its spicing. You might think you’d be able to identify specific spice flavors, but it was harder than I thought. It was a mélange with allspice and cinnamon and… what else? The combinations were genius, and not once did pepper or chili notes burn my tongue or lips, as happens more often than I like in less skillful cookery.
The hot mezza vegetarian list had mouth-watering items such as a cheese pie and a spinach pie (fatayer b’sbanigh in Lebanese), described as homemade dough filled with spinach, pine nuts and sumac onions in lemon and extra virgin olive oil. I thought that sounded irresistible, but my companion really wanted the falafel ($6).
From the non-vegetarian mezza, we settled on sujuk ($7), a sausage made with lamb, beef and garlic and served warm in a rich tomato sauce. They described the sausage as “spicy,” but once again, it wasn’t hot spice but another combo of those fragrant, sweet flavors that wowed me in the walnut spread.
With a glass of French rosé wine, this course was ethereal and I would have been happy stopping here — and maybe adding the spinach pie. But we kept going, ordering main dishes and even dessert.
The menu lists less than a dozen main dishes, everything from fatteh bel — “a traditional yogurt dish with chicken, lamb or eggplant” served in layers with chickpeas, warm yogurt garlic sauce and sautéed pine nuts — to a simple kebab of meat chunks and vegetables over rice. It was going to be hard to top or even equal those delectable mezzas, I thought, and sure enough, the main course wasn’t quite as brilliant.
I blame myself though for deciding to “go light” and dial back the calories after a lot of first-course indulgence. My grilled salmon ($19) with grilled veggies was virtuous but dull by comparison.
My companions selected a portion of ouzi ($16), braised chunks of lamb over spiced rice, tastier than my salmon but still not as interesting as the apps.
Our third main course, called sharat ghanam ($23), was the best, I thought — slices of grilled lamb loin topped with a fragrant herb sauce and served with tender potatoes.
We didn’t get to try anything from the flatbreads part of Phoenician’s menu, each of which is described as a pie (spinach, cheese, mixed herbs, or lamb and beef). Nor did we sample any of the soup-and-salad offerings, many of which definitely sound interesting. Fattoush — mixed fresh vegetables with toasted pita and dressed with a pomegranate-sumac-garlic sauce — and an eggplant salad called shakshouky would be obvious choices for a return visit.
Desserts (all $6) pleased our palates with fresh, clean tastes and subtle flavorings. Ashta — chilled clotted cream topped with not-too-sweet orange blossom syrup and chopped pistachios — and knafe bel jibne were especially lovely. The latter is a warm semolina-crusted tart with sweetened cream cheese; simple and refreshing.
We came away feeling a little envious of people who can pop into Phoenician Taverna on a regular basis, including someone I know who says she can walk there. Having easy access to this wonderful cooking definitely makes that commute more enticing.
And one more thing: Mr. Matar, would you consider opening a second location in the city?
Phoenician Taverna, 7944 Mason Montgomery Road, Mason, facebook.com/phoeniciantaverna