By Giancarlo Buonomo, Daily Food Columnist
Published October 29, 2014
Serving ethnic food anywhere in the United States is difficult, but it must be especially so in Ann Arbor. Veer too far toward authenticity, and you risk your only customers being lonely graduate students. Americanize your food too much, and you’ll be forced to cover everything with Kraft singles and mayonnaise for maize-and-blue clad superfans.
Mezes Greek Grill
715 North University
So I was intrigued when I heard about Mezes Greek Grill, a newcomer on North University recently opened by the Roumanis family. I have very little experience with Greek food. I study Ancient Greek, so my perception of Hellenic culture is all thighbones burned at the altar, ramming triremes and bearded philosophers canoodling beautiful boys. My perception of the food was that it wasn’t Italian. I had no idea whether to expect vague pan-Mediterranean comfort, or a restaurant plucked straight out of Athens via helicopter and plopped down next to the Ann Arbor Panera.
There were no thighbones burning in the kitchen when I first stepped into Mezes, but there was a spit stacked high with layers of lamb slowly turning next to heat lamps. That lamb is sliced off in short strips for gyro, a staple Greek dish that Mezes serves several versions of. The one I tried on my first visit was classic: meat, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, onion and yogurt sauce ... except for the three fries placed on top. I think this dish best represents Mezes’ solution to the conundrum presented at the beginning. The food is unmistakably, authentically Greek, but with American touches that are simultaneously comforting and creative.
The menu revolves around several core proteins, differing in both type and preparation. There’s the roasted lamb gyro, or grilled souvlakia of beef, chicken or pork. You can get all of these on a skewer or on a pita, either by itself or with a Greek salad and grilled bread. I highly recommend the sandwich route. The combination of warm meat, tangy yogurt and crisp vegetables — with that trio of hot, salty fries — is simple but full of flavorful contrasts.
The souvlakia is far and away the best. The menu says that they’re grilled but they taste like they’ve been deep fried, with a crisp, caramelized exterior and moist, almost fluffy interior, like meaty falafel. The gyro also has a nice flavor, but all those hours wiltering under the heat lamps leave the meat a bit desiccated. The pork and chicken are best enjoyed on a stick, so that the flavors of the marinade — olive oil, lemon, herbs — can come through.
It’s with the side dishes that Mezes really creates some wonderful culinary synergy between Greece and America. The first time I went in, the guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted Greek fries. I said yes, and a few minutes later received what looked like a fresher version of poutine, that classic Quebecois dish of fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. This one was the Greek version, with lemony dressing, crumbled feta and olives. What’s great about it is how each element is taken seriously. The actual fries are some of the best I’ve had in Ann Arbor: thick yet crispy, streaked with earthy skin. The dressing is vibrant, the cheese becomes molten from the heat, the olives actually taste like olives.
The Greek potato salad is even better. Chunks of tender spud are combined with not mayonnaise, but that same lemon dressing and chopped dill, scallion and red onion. The potatoes soak up the vinaigrette, softening them to the point where bits break off and thicken the olive oil and lemon. It’s potato salad bound with potato.
If you have any room left, the baklava is definitely worth it. A thick layer of chopped walnuts and honey, fragrant with cumin and cinnamon, is sandwiched between layers of phyllo. It’s sweet but not cloying, opulently rich but not so much that you only eat one bite. And if you’re really in the mood for something new, try a Frappé coffee. I’d never heard of this drink, which apparently is ubiquitous in Greece and Cyprus. To make it, you take Nescafé, water and sugar blended into a froth and then pour that into a glass of ice and milk. It tastes like a glass full of cappuccino foam, and must be drunk in small sips.
Whatever you order, I’m sure that you’ll notice the unique ambiance of Mezes as soon as you walk in. This is not a place for the grumpy or antisocial. Ask about the ingredients of a salad, and you might get a long lecture about the careful sourcing of the olive oil. Cough when you walk in, and you’ll be told that you need soup. Sit down, and you’ll definitely get at least two people asking you if you like everything, with a recommendation for what to order next time. At Mezes, this mix of passion, politeness and sass is as important as the mixture of herbs.