Comfort, it turns out, is not relative, at least with food. No matter the cuisine or the culture that any given dish springs from, it will contain one neurological common denominator, buried in the primal place in our brains: Nostalgia
In search of Salt Lake’s best comfort food, we asked six restaurateurs and chefs what comfort food means to them. In this edition, Ali Sabbah shares his take on complex Lebanese cuisine made with love.
The Person: Ali Sabbah
The Restaurant: Mazza
Mazza was the first place many native Utahns tried middle eastern food and we loved it. Now a whole host of falafel and shawarma spots dot the restaurant landscape but what continues to separate Mazza from the rest is its owner, Ali Sabbah.
Although, forced to close his other Salt Lake locations, the cozy spot on 15th and 15th that started it all maintains the standard Sabbah holds himself to.
“We are not here to cut corners,” he says explaining that many other restaurants use pre-made shortcuts and frozen supplies. “We make our food, every day from scratch. I slice the lamb myself. In doing so we show respect for the dishes the tradition.”
That tradition is a complex, layered cuisine that respects manual methods and originally comes from the boyhood tables of his childhood in Lebanon but ranges even father incorporating the diverse notes and nuances from around the middle eastern region. For example, one of the most comforting items on the Mazza menu: Chicken and Potatoes Mutabbak. “It is a simple dish in its presentation but it is quite complex,” Sabbah says. “The chicken is braised in our magic spice which contains more Lebanese flavors but we add tamarind to create the sauce. Tamarind is not commonly used in Lebanon. It’s more common in Iraq and the gulf. We create a dish that has a more complex middle eastern flavor.”
And then there’s the soup. Mazza’s red and green lentil soups scream comfort.
“I can’t get rid of either,” he says laughing. “I had the red lentil off the menu for a short period and a mother came in with her 8-year-old son and he started crying because he’d been craving ‘the red soup.’ I’d like to get in touch with her and let her know we have both soups!”
Sabbah built both soups himself and their simple presentation belies many steps of layering spices and flavor.
“Lentil soups are quite tricky,” he says. “They’re not meat-based so you can’t throw too many spices in there. Vegetarian soups require complexity to give them depth. You don’t just throw things together and hope for the best.”
The best, Sabbah says, is often merely reliable and, yes, comforting. Thus you’ll find Ali in his comforting, simple cafe, behind the stove fussing over each dish, the same as it ever was.
If You Go…
1515 S. 1500 East, SLC, (801) 484-9259,
Open 4:30 to 9 p.m. (closed Sunday)
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