Continental Plates

by Mary Tutwiler

In just four months, Mazen's Continental and Mediterranean cuisine has garnered a following.

"Continental" is your grandmother's term for class. Think Lincoln Continental or Continental breakfast. So when Ghassan Harb opened Mazen's Grill in July, it was like deja vu for longtime residents of Lafayette, who remember Harb from the City Club during the heyday of the oil boom, circa 1980. Harb's charm and confidence awake memories of Lafayette's past, but what really fits like an old-fashioned white glove is the Continental cuisine that dusts off classics such as Veal Oscar, Oysters Rockefeller and Bienville, and the unctuous hollandaise sauce generously ladled over a number of appetizers and entrées.

Until Alice Waters started an American cooking revolution in the mid 1970s, Continental cuisine was what diners expected when they went out for fancy food. Here in Lafayette, the City Club was a bastion of old-school cooking, something that Harb internalized over the course of 25 years working in the organization. The City Club moved from its quarters on top of the First National Bank building downtown to River Ranch in 2002. Harb went out on his own in 2005 and joined forces with restaurateur Mazen Hijazi, a fellow waiter from their early days at the City Club. Ten years ago, Hijazi opened a restaurant, Mazen's Mediterranean and Continental Restaurant, in Lake Charles. He and Harb transferred the popular model, menu intact, from Lake Charles to Lafayette, and Mazen's Grill opened in July in the old Woods and Waters restaurant on Johnston Street, across from the Mall of Acadiana.

The best game plan is to bring a few friends the first time you visit Mazen's, because there are so many good choices of appetizers. It is also an act of self defense ' these aren't light nibbles. If you're a trencherman, order half a dozen and pass them around the table. My hands-down favorite was the crab cake, made from fresh Louisiana jumbo lump crabmeat with both a lemon butter sauce and a good dollop of hollandaise. A nice second is the fried asparagus, stacked up like a small log cabin. They only come with a dribble of hollandaise, but there's enough on the crab cake to make a pool for dipping the crunchy green spears. Oysters Rockefeller arrive sizzling on the half shell. While Antoine's in New Orleans, where the dish was invented, swears there is no spinach in the sauce, Harb says that his green topping is based on the deep green leafy vegetable. The seasoning, however, is bacon and anise, giving the oyster dish a salty-licorice flavored kick. For a lighter starter, the seared Ahi tuna comes pleasingly rare, with disks of hoisin and chili sauce for dipping.

A nod to Harb and Hijazi's Lebanese background are the grape leaves, hummus, tabouli and kibbe on the menu. Instead of the yoghurt and mint dip commonly found as an accompaniment to the meat and rice filled grape leaves, Harb has come up with a whipped potato and garlic sauce that he serves as well with pita bread.

If you must have fresh greens, there are spinach and caesar salads on the menu, but I suggest go whole hog and order one of the seafood-stuffed avocados. Again, recommendations are to share the halved avocado filled with shrimp, crawfish or lump crabmeat. The mustard remoulade sauce is about as rich as salad dressing gets but partners perfectly with seafood.

This time of year, Mazen's is getting superb lump crabmeat. Chef Lock Donaldson, who worked for Mazen's in Lake Charles, clearly understands that less is more when it comes to such a delicacy. The walnut-size lumps of backfin crab are served au naturel, just warmed and sauced, as a topping over several of the fish and meat entrées, a classic combo in Louisiana cooking.

Mazen's offers six fish entrées. Depending on availability, speckled trout, red snapper, red fish, flounder, grouper, or tripletail will be the fish of the night. Donaldson buys his fish fresh and whole, and fillets them at the restaurant, ensuring very high quality in flavor and texture. The fish fillets are cooked two ways, dusted with flour and pan-sauteed in butter, or "toasted" with the classic panee of eggwash and bread crumbs and pan-fried for a crisp toasty crunch. Fish Aladdin comes topped with the gorgeous crabmeat and is sauced with a lemon butter sauce, the fine red tendrils of Syrian saffron a decorative paisley on the plate. Several of the fish dishes limit the butter to a minimum, making them a little less heart-stopping.

A homemade meat stock reduced to a glaze is flavored with wine or raspberries to sauce prime cut steaks, duck breast and grilled quail. The sauces are intense and can be overly salty. If you really want to gild the lily, which is what Continental cooking is all about, go for the 3-ounce fillet with a three-wine reduction sauce, topped with jumbo lump crabmeat and hollandaise. The roasted duck breast with a raspberry reduction is served a lovely medium rare. Donaldson has mastered the art of getting his tiny quail crisply browned on the outside while still medium rare on the inside. Best of all, Harb insisted that in his restaurant, it's good manners to pick up the quail by the Lilliputian drumstick, dip it in the sauce and eat it with your fingers.

If you still can eat dessert, go for the made-to-order Grand Marnier or chocolate soufflés, which are big enough for two to share.

Mazen's wine list is reasonably priced, and there is a little bit of everything for wine lovers. Lots of champagnes top the list (a Louis Latour pouilly-fuisse, as old school as the food, puts in an appearance), and there is a strong showing of cabernet sauvignons from California, including some old Lafayette favorites from Silver Oak, Cakebread, Jordan and Rutherford Hill wineries. The Sequoia Grove cab with its rich berry and oak notes and a smooth smoky finish is offered by the glass.

Without much ado and no advertising to speak of, Mazen's, in four months, has already attracted a following. On a Tuesday night, the restaurant is convivially full. The hunting lodge atmosphere of Woods and Waters is still cozily there, minus all the stuffed and mounted game trophies. White linen napkins, attentive service and comfortable chairs add to the experience. Entering Mazen's really is like stepping back in time, a time when wraith-like thinness didn't matter so much, cream was good, and butter was better.

Mazen's (5818 Johnston St.) is open for dinner only, Monday through Saturday. Call 769-4440 for reservations, especially on the weekends.