Review: Mecca Grill is changing course from Lebanon to Morocco
Danielle Lirette Sultan. See also: More photos from Mecca Grill
270 South Downing Street
I'd heard the management had changed at Mecca Grill, a once-popular Lebanese restaurant in a tiny strip center in Washington Park, so I dropped by for dinner, curious to see if the new owner was going to give me a reason to come this way besides my usual detour for cheap(er) gas at the Bradley station across the street. The space looked as tired as always, with dull burnt-sienna walls and metal-edged chairs that have seen better days. The menu, too, seemed short on inspiration, with the same Middle Eastern playlist you find all over town. But looks can be deceiving.
See also: A Closer Look at Mecca Grill
The restaurant is, in fact, in the midst of a transformation, and new paint -- a color has already been picked out -- is only the beginning. Purchased last spring by a Moroccan family, Mecca Grill is on its way to becoming a broader Mediterranean restaurant. "I will add the best plates from Morocco," says owner Amal, a native of Casablanca and mother of three. The Lebanese fare will stay, too, because "it's good and so close to my cooking." Amal doesn't want her last name used, and her husband, Hassan, a website developer with an MBA who is helping her get the business going, explains the reason for her reserve: "It's her culture," he says. "She doesn't want to be in the spotlight."
Amal might be shy, but she's full of enthusiasm when talking about why she wanted to open a restaurant. "Oh, my God, I'm crazy about cooking!" she exclaims. The original plan had been to start her own Moroccan restaurant, but when she learned that the previous owners of Mecca Grill, who were acquaintances, were interested in selling, she made an offer. After some delay, it was accepted -- while she was en route to the hospital to have her third baby. "I told my husband, 'We'll get to the baby first, then the restaurant,'" she recalls with a laugh.
Given the timing, Mecca Grill's transformation has moved slower than hoped. Amal hired a Lebanese chef to develop a menu -- recipes were not included with the purchase -- and to train her and her father, who shares responsibilities in the kitchen. She's hoping to add Moroccan specialties such as handmade couscous, bistilla and tajines within six months. But don't wait until then to visit: Mecca Grill may be run by Moroccans, but it's turning out some tasty Lebanese dishes.
Danielle Lirette Baklava
My favorite, and the favorite of Hassan, too, is the chicken shawarma, which is offered as a plate or a sandwich. Marinated and cooked in yogurt, the chicken arrived in a generous heap, with remnants of sauce clinging to the thin, tender strips like Alfredo on noodles. Tinted orangish-yellow from turmeric, a key ingredient in the Moroccan seven-spice blend added to the marinade, the sauce had a complexity that would draw me through the door -- even if I weren't already nearby to fill up the tank.
When family members come to visit from Morocco, Amal asks them to bring her spices, because she likes the stronger flavors available there. Perhaps this is why the lamb shank is such a standout. Made with more of that seven-spice blend, it had the warm flavor profile that Americans associate with baking spices, given the blend's cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Cooked low and slow for hours until the meat flaked off the large bone and the zucchini, carrots, tomatoes and green peppers softened and formed a gravy, the dish was Middle Eastern comfort food. My only complaint was its price: At $15.45, it's one of the most expensive items on the menu, and I would have liked a second shank. Or at least chairs that didn't have remnants of food on the seats and water glasses that got refilled.