Tonight I impulsively went out to dine quite late, at the grown-up hour of 8:30, all by myself. I'd toyed with taking advantage of the three-course Dine LA prix-fixe menu at the restaurant where I work by splitting it with someone to bring both the price and the volume of food within my range. Lacking a pal to split, I hatched a new plan and headed out to a restaurant I've long been curious about in Pasadena's Old Town, Neomeze. After the seat I was offered (in the bar complete with TV screens of sports and annoying 90's rock) almost drove me away, the hostess relented and seated me in the restaurant where I was bemused to discover my tablecloth was brown paper. How conceptual.
Is being a waitress by (temporary) profession making me too picky? Though inattentive, the staff were congenial, which does go a long way...or it would have if they hadn't brought me the wrong drink, neglected to send out the bread I asked for, sent my food out to the wrong table, sent me another table's food, neglected to clear dishes I was done with, made me keep the same cutlery through two courses, and made a mistake on my bill. Even all this would have been overlooked if the food had transported me. Unfortunately the most uplifting part of the meal was the psalm I read while waiting for my kibbeh to arrive .
My glass of malbec went well with the psalm. It smelled of earth and mushrooms and ended up going well with all three courses, though it was served in a very trendy little bulb of a stemless glass that was too wide for me to get a good grip on with one hand, driving me to handle my wine glass two-fisted, like a toddler learning to drink. Not endearing! If I'd been offered crayons to draw on the paper tablecloth or the paper napkins perhaps I would have been mollified.
The kibbeh, little meatballs of beef and pine nuts in a crunchy crust, were nicely textured and mild, going well with the smoky salsa that tasted a bit like harissa. Eating sausage meze without bread didn't seem right, but my kibbeh and the lettuce it rested on were long gone by the time my pita, warm but sweet and doughy--perhaps in the gringo class of Weber's bread pita?--finally arrived after I pestered a busboy for them. Second course was a tagine, the first tagine I've had a chance to actually BUY in a real RESTAURANT as opposed to the dozen or so I've made myself following, more or less, instructions in Paula Wolfert Moroccan cookbooks. I couldn't wait to taste a real, authentic tagine and learn secrets of flavour and texture that would inspire my future cooking. What arrived was a well-cooked chicken stew, falling off the bone, with white raisins, fingerling potatoes and green olives in a bit of gravy, but tasting bland and under seasoned, with nothing to set off the sweet/savoury, fresh/cooked or smooth/crunchy dichotomy I love about Arab-speaking Mediterranean cuisine. Fortunately I'd rescued my smoky harissa from first course to dump on the chicken to give it some heat and I munched away with my fingers (the pita having finally arrived, remember) contentedly enough. This unremarkable stew cemented my plan to not return to this restaurant, reinforced by the minute by the insipid 90's rock that continued unabated and the TV screens showing sports well within view of me in the restaurant.
I rejected a plate of sliders (for my neighbors) and read my anthropology text until my third course, grilled halloumi served in a red wine fig reduction with an almond paste crostini was delivered to my neighbors, who had to exert themselves to get it delivered to me. The jammy fig and wine sauce was the one delightful part of the dinner and something that I will probably attempt at home, though perhaps with a muscat, and then stirred into rose petal jam and served in a tart on top of a cream cheese custard, perhaps, or as a filing for a vanilla cake along with whipped cream and yogurt to temper the sweetness, with pistachios of course... But I digress. The halloumi was a little square of white salty cheese, crusty on the outside from being grilled. The almond paste on a little slice of french bread seemed like crunchy almond butter from the store and fought a bit with the cheese for dominant salty flavour. After a meal of dishes apparently adjusted in flavour for the uninformed gringo palate, I was surprised to get something that didn't taste like a normal American dessert--salty and savoury with only one sweet thing: this halloumi dish would make a hearty and sustaining breakfast. The only thing missing from my meze dinner was Turkish coffee with my dessert, but the waiter denied knowledge of any Turkish coffee and instead offered me, to my horror, regular diner coffee. At this point my mind was firmly made up never to return. My question for the owners: why name your restaurant after meze if you dont' plan to serve the whole deal? My question for myself: why oh why hadn't I found a real meze restaurant that served real coffee and tagine with salty pickled lemons and fresh parsley or crunchy almonds on?
Demoralized, I returned to my anthropology text while I waited for the bill, by now driven to actively wish to depart by the badly mixed music of the recently arrived DJ--the signal, apparently, to dim the lights even further and for preppily dressed 20-somethings to fill up the bar and gaze at basketball on the TVs.
In fact, it seems that 'bar' rather than 'restaurant' is the dominant metaphor for Neomeze, based on their clientele and the indifferent food and service.
At least Ira was broadcasting Science Friday to sooth me once I was back at the car. Despite, or perhaps because of the disappointments, it was an educational evening. Lesson 1: The most enjoyable part of the evening was imagining that I would dash off to a restaurant, taste delicious food, experience a whole new place. Reading menus was engaging and plotting out all the Dine LA restaurants within my hood was intriguing and far more satisfying than the reality of parking, ordering, and being mistreated by cook and waitstaff. Also a lot cheaper; $2 for parking and $40-ish for my meal and wine. Lesson 2: I probably won't like a restaurant where the staff are dressed more casually than the clients. Lesson 3: Listen to the music before you submit to an hour and a half of torment. The music may also tell you who the bar/restaurant wants to please, and if it ain't you, then get out while the gettin's good. Lesson 4: My cooking expertise and experience serving at Elements have priced both my taste for food and for service way outside what I'm willing to pay at an American restaurant. Alas! Woe is me!