120 E Liberty St.,
Friday-Saturday 11am–Midnight Sun 4pm–10pm
After living in Ann Arbor for three years, setting a course for downtown—at least knowing the difference between Washington and Liberty—should be a cinch. Yet somehow I still manage to get it wrong on most occasions. Walking a few extra blocks through freezing temperatures, my date and I lamenting not looking up the address for Mezzevino, I was hopeful that the new restaurant on the block would navigate the cuisines that call the wide-reaching Mediterranean region home better than I navigate Ann Arbor’s small downtown on a Thursday night.
The room smelled like garlic and toasted herbs. Two vertical spits, crisping rounds of pork and chicken gyros meat, stood sentry before the semi-open kitchen at the far end of bar. One of the cooks chiseled into a spit. Later, we ordered a warm salad of chicken gyros, chickpeas, and cilantro mint dressing, and as we savored the crisp, spicy bites, my date and I traded looks. We did it again when we ate braised lamb Moussaka—Greek shepherd’s pie with cinnamon, eggplant and roasted tomato, topped with bechamel sauce. Putting words to our looks, my date asked, “is this Mediterranean comfort food?”
The answer to that question applied to many of the things we ate (and drank) that night. Thank the gods for gin toddies. Combining hot water, gin, honey, lavender, and cinnamon, the aromatic toddy—and a generous side portion of roasted olives, tossed in toasted cumin—brought back the warmth that I lost during the walk.
The iPad menu, thoughtfully dimmed to match the low, golden filament lighting of the room, seemed like a boon—the photos of the drinks and dishes are vivid and professional—but became cumbersome while ordering. Having to revert to the main page to find and press the the section of the menu to revisit the dish you had been eyeing is a chore. Ordering directly from the iPad: problem solved.
From the front door to the table and throughout the meal our server was proactively friendly and enthusiastic, and she balanced her time, at and away from the table, perfectly. She never lingered; we never waited. She encouraged us to order tapas-style, setting a stack of small plates in the near corner of the table to ensure the hot yolk from our fried egg and eggplant crostini wouldn’t mingle with the sherry paprika dressing of our camerones, keeping the sherry dressing from the Moussaka, and so on.
Next was orecchiette and ground lamb sausage, bitter with tiny stalks of rapini, hot from the pepper flakes, and salty from the grana padano, served in broth and scooped with a slotted spoon, leaving the reserve broth to sop up with fluffy, housemade pita. Just as we finished the pasta, the swordfish arrived, sweet and still moist inside, served atop smoked eggplant puree, punctuated by tiny piles of a tomato and feta combo, encircled by parsley oil.
Sweet and spicy in equal measure, and true to Mediterranean form, the cardamom-infused Moroccan creme caramel, a perfect round of custard halved by a crisp chocolate tuile, completed our meal. But on the way out, enticed by the barman’s fire-play, we decided to delay the cold walk ahead with a seat at the bar. We sipped from glasses of dark, digestive Fernet Branca, which Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, describes as being “akin to waking up in a foreign country and finding a crowd of people arguing in agitated, thorny voices outside your hotel window.” It may go down like a bread knife, but it sure settles the stomach.
I suppose any hot meal on a cold night constitutes comfort food. And while the concept of comfort food and the Mediterranean diet are not generally paired together, Mezzevino, with its ingredients and dishes from distant locales, offers the Midwest palette something it’s used to: rich abundance.