Were you to hear that a couple of gentlemen had opened a meze joint near Oleana in Cambridge, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were culinary masochists.
Because Oleana isn’t merely competition in the realm of haute meze. According to Conde Nast Traveler’s 2016 Where in the World to Eat, it is one of the 207 best restaurants on earth.
Yet the owners of Moona in Inman Square — Mohamad El Zein, from Lebanon, and Radouan Ouassaidi, from Morocco — know what they are about. On a busy night at Moona (which seems to be every night, if recent visits are any indication), these two appear to be fully, confidently, even elegantly in their element. They keep the room humming in the face of a crush of diners and service that can veer toward the cockeyed. It’s yet another reminder that having the restaurant owner on site ratchets up the potential for overall pleasure.
Moona occupies a storied location: The first Legal Sea Foods opened here, and was later replaced by Rosie’s Bakery, which closed its doors after 30 years in 2015. Gone without a trace is Rosie’s loopy, vintage ’80s pink signage. That this is the same space borders on the miraculous. You could easily be in the West Village and not little old Inman Square.
The dropped ceiling has been removed, a striking, cavernous space revealed. A new bar consumes half the room, which makes sense: Moona already feels like a neighborhood haunt. A window opens over a shelf of wine, one that was previously bricked over. On a recent Sunday night, snow can be seen through it, drifting sideways, romantically lit by either streetlight or the moon. Dangling lanterns echo a Marrakesh hashish parlor; the mosaic floor quotes old North Africa. At the same time, the tile that wraps the open kitchen and back wall feels stylishly present-day.
A similar tension courses through the menu, not only between contemporary and classical but New England and the Middle East, which obviously share little when it comes to season, climate, or native ingredients. Yet these clashes turn productive in the hands of chef Mark Christian McMann. He spent formative time working in the meze trenches, as sous chef for Michelin-starred chef Michael Psilakis’s Kefi in Manhattan — and the experience shows.
Brussels sprouts provide a useful view of what’s at play, not exactly a staple of the Levant. Moona’s version is not your grandma’s (steamed gently into pure oblivion?). Sure, roasted Brussels sprouts surface on menus all over town, often swirled with aioli and heat. But these are given Arabic spin, dosed with tahini, toasted pine nuts, barberries, coriander.
Another example of juxtaposition comes with the lowly sweet potato. First, it is given the Hasselback treatment, a technique of Swedish origin (Restaurang Hasselbacken, in Stockholm) where you slice a potato thinly short-wise, but keep it joined at the bottom. They are then topped with maple tahini and cilantro. What sounds like a UN meeting gone wrong — citizens of Sweden, Maine, Vermont, and Lebanon asked to convene — turns out to mesh brilliantly.
Some of the meze (or mezza, as they are spelled at Moona) don’t scale quite the same heights. The lettuces in the fattoush salad may be “local,” but that doesn’t translate to crisp. Dressed too far in advance? Possibly. Whatever it is, the life has been wrung from them, even if their accompaniments offer further successful interplay (feta, cranberry, walnut, grapefruit vinaigrette). The stuffed grape leaves — here, “Istanbul vine leaves” — are dry and forgettable, though I may not be the best judge. I’ve never met a stuffed grape leaf I understood.
The hummus is also too dry, short on tahini. The walnut-crusted cod sounds great but follows the trend. This time a cast-iron serving vessel looks to be the culprit. The pickles, potentially the ideal foil, want for tanginess. Finally, the tarbiya, or egg and lemon soup, is a gorgeous sight and comes generously stocked with chicken, dill, fennel, and toasted vermicelli. The broth, however, lacks personality.
Yet these are quibbles in the face of otherwise pervasive excellence, and that especially goes for the “daily meals,” which I’ll get to shortly. But first, the chicken bastilla, which makes Moona worth a visit unto itself and provides clear evidence that McMann can deliver on Moroccan classics by playfully adapting local meat and produce. In effect, this is chicken pot pie with 15 ingredients, done Old World. Crisp layers of phyllo, almonds, orange blossom water, shredded chicken, ginger, cinnamon — here’s the short list of why the Yotam Ottolenghi cookbooks have caught (and stayed on) fire.
Other favorite mezza include the fava bean dip, dusted with paprika and grated egg. This hits home where the hummus doesn’t. The house-made merguez sausage is thicker than the classic, but profoundly satisfying in the novel play between ground lamb and orange zest. Same goes for the grilled octopus, perfectly tender, and made brightly alive via preserved lemon relish and fennel yogurt.
So finally those “daily meals,” or main courses. At many restaurants, you think (hope) “main” translates to “main event,” then find yourself crestfallen. All four of Moona’s leave you the opposite — elated, elevated, and wanting more. The showstopper is the grilled whole fish, a dish too often disappointing. But it’s a pure triumph, and considering the size of the red snapper — easily enough for two — a serious deal at $32. It is crisp and spotted with char on the outside, its inside impeccably moist. The dressing of olive oil, fresh herbs, harissa, and chermoula vaults this into the stratosphere of fish-eating nirvana.
The lamb chops are equally revelatory. Also expertly grilled, they are draped across a generous smear of pistachio butter and joined on the plate by muhammara (red pepper-walnut dip). We are full of mezza. Nibbling at the margins should be all we can muster, yet we’re still all in.
Moona has a short but canny list of wine and beer, and with no hard-liquor license, only two “cocktails.” The better of the two, the Persian Version — Lillet blanc, rose syrup, mint, lemon — works as delicious liquid dessert. But a classic, kunafe — layers of sweet cheese, phyllo, orange blossom syrup, and crème fraiche — steals the show with its decadent, dreamy harmony. It would be culinary masochism not to order it.
243 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-945-7448, www.moonarestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Mezza $7-$14. Main courses $17-$32. Desserts $3-$7.
Hours Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m. Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.
Noise level Urban hum
What to order Fava bean dip, sweet potato Hasselback, Brussels sprouts, merguez, chicken bastilla, octopus, lamb chops, grilled whole fish, kunafe
Ted Weesner can be reached at email@example.com.