There is always a new, much-hyped restaurant to visit, but it is important to frequent local gems. Behind an unassuming Tooting shop front, in a space smaller and more simply decorated that many living rooms, shines one of South London’s brightest jewels: Meza. Rarely is a seat on one of Meza’s striped benches left unfilled and, with no website or landline (let alone a social media presence), its popularity rests on excellent cooking alone.
This family-run operation exudes a sense of relaxed commotion. Diners knock elbows with one another and face the stares of outsiders queuing to collect takeaways. Four chefs squeeze in an open kitchen, from which appears a constant stream of Lebanese mezze plates.
Baskets of fresh flatbread soon arrive at the table, so begin with an accompanying dip. Moutabal redolent of smoky grilled aubergine and thick with tahini is an excellent choice, as is silky hummus topped with minced lamb and walnuts. Another favourite is Labneh, a creamy strained yogurt whose slight sourness works wonderfully as a foil to the richness of other dishes or simply heaped on leftover flatbread.
From the mezze section, try torpedo-shaped Kibbeh whose crisp shells give way to crushed wheat and juicy minced lamb warm with onions and spices. Vegetarian options are also excellent. Soft, fluffy pastry parcels known as Fatayer conceal a bitter-sweet filling of spinach, pine nuts and citrusy sumac; halloumi oozes from grilled pitta; and Moujadra, that most comforting combination of spice, lentils and rice, is crowned with the crunch of salty, slightly oily fried onions.
To accompany the richer, fried food, there are a few lighter options. A Fattoush salad is luscious with sweet, ripe tomto, cucumber, peppers and onion, tossed in a tangy lemon, sumac and olive oil dressing, and studded with slivers of crisp pitta. There are also delicious acidic vine leaves, which are wrapped around sweetly spiced rice and arrive on a bed of lettuce, tomato and pomegranate.
I could happily eat a meal at Meza composed entirely of mezze plates, but there are mains of grilled meat. Our chicken Shish Tauok had been marinated in lemon, tomato, garlic, paprika and sumac, then grilled until the cubes of tender meet were falling apart and suffused with the subtle flavour of charcoal. We ate it with an extra basket of bread and leftover Labneh – a much better pairing than the mayonnaise it arrived with!
What I particularly like here is the disregard for excessive presentation. The food is plated on attractive bowls, and perhaps garnished with a slice of lemon or a few pomegranate seeds, but the focus is on honest cooking over presentation. At Meza, you are guaranteed a plate of simple, tasty food – perfect when paired with a carafe of consistently good Lebanese wine.
There are no deserts, only complimentary 'Sfouf'. This almond-semolina based cake is characterised by the distinctive yellow colouring of turmeric and, at Meza, is so drenched in honey that puddles form on the napkin. By now you will be so full that you will need only a small square of Sfouf and a cup of mint tea for the perfect conclusion to a simply lovely meal.