Jul 31, 2012
by SIMON LOWES CBN Feature Writer
Summer strollers in downtown Bend recently may have noticed rich new aromas wafting in the air heralding the arrival of latest gastronomic hot spot Mazza Bistro, which is set to add an exotic fresh flavor to a burgeoning culinary scene in the central hub.
Featuring an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern cuisine– including mouthwatering shawerma wraps, kababs, falafel, authentic hummus, baba ghannouj and tabboule salad – in a bustling revamped space formerly occupied by Pita Pit on Brooks Street, the family-owned restaurant is being operated by Michel Shehadeh, along with his wife Maxine and sons Rami and Abe, together with the rest of the crew, with a promise to “feed you like family and treat you like royalty.”
Michel, who said many of the recipes had been handed down through generations, added, “We like to think we are serving gourmet food, fast. When you come in you will be taking food home because we feed you like family.
“We want you to be full! Taste is one Mazza’s biggest passions, everything will taste authentic, which means it will taste amazing.”
Michel said he had ruminated for some time on launching a new venture and laying down additional roots in the community after relocating his family to Central Oregon in 2005, before settling on the Mazza concept, which offers counter service with food brought to the table or prepared to go.
He added, “We wanted to offer something different. We have this food at home and wouldn’t put out anything that we wouldn’t serve on our own table.
“We also wanted to play a part in adding to the town’s diversity.
“After living here for a while, I have been impressed with Bend and its sophistication in terms of food. This is also the kind of audience that can help us grow.
“They are as passionate as we are about food and can come here and critique. We are open to feedback and they are engaged; which makes us even more so.”
Michel said he and his family were looking for a smaller town to move to and researching different locales before settling down in the region, adding, “We vacationed in the area and camped here before we found and bought our house, so I joke that our first house in Bend was actually a tent!”
Michel, who was born in Jordan and emigrated to the U.S. in 1975, graduated in journalism from California State University, Long Beach, and initially crafted a career in the magazine and film industry.
After parallel successful forays into the dining world, including owning Italian restaurants and establishing Middle Eastern eateries, with a special flair for menus, he decided to launch the latest venture as he “wanted to get all the eggs in the Bend basket” following his children’s graduation from local schools.
Older son Abe attended COCC and actually went on to pioneer growing Bend-based business BlackStrap, which manufactures and distributes facegear, glasses and accessories for snow and action sports enthusiasts.
Menu highlights at Mazza Bistro include popular items such as falafel, hand-prepared hummus and shawerma (meats grilled on a revolving vertical spit and finely sliced or shaved) rolled in lavash flatbread wraps or served as a plate.
The shawerma wraps feature meats marinated in spices and their own juices via the traditional vertical tower cooking method, accompanied by ingredients such as seasoned onions, hummus, pickles, salad and a choice of tahini or garlic yogurt sauce.
Michel said they are served cut in half, and most people “eat the whole thing in one go” first time, but tend to portion off on subsequent visits because the wraps are generously filling.
The bistro will officially launch in the next week starting with lunch and dinner, while additional future plans will likely include weekend breakfasts.
Beer and wine will also be served, as well as Turkish coffee and Middle Eastern tea “prepared in a special way”. Beer selections include six taps featuring a range of craft brews utilizing glycol lines to ensure an extra chilled pour, and bottled items including the popular Almaza Lebanese beer which is a brisk light-bodied beer with a sweet citrus finish.
Michel said Mazza is a phrase that can be roughly translated as referring to “good, appetizing food,” or varied portions of appealing food.
He added, “The food is very visual and covers a spectrum of colors. We want you to use all five senses and indulge your taste buds as part of the overall experience.
“We use authentic family recipes and fresh ingredients, with everything being freshly prepared every day. Nothing comes from a can except the pickles!
“The falafel is actually my grandmother’s old recipe, with my contribution being to make big batches, and our tahini hails from the Middle East and is the same as was made 2,000 years ago, with no additives or preservatives.
“We are also big believers in supporting local business and the meat and produce will be bought locally wherever possible.”
Michel said Mazza was looking at retailing products such as the hummus, and pointed to the appeal of the healthy menu items to a variety of palates, including options for vegetarians, vegans and meat-lovers alike, as well as having a range of gluten-free items.
They also have a selection of delicious sweets including mamoul – a type of cookie filled with pistachio paste - chocolate halaweh and baklava fingers.
Renovation of the former Pita Pit restaurant included a major expansion of the cooking line, from six to 14 feet, and hood, together with an overhaul of the décor, though care was taken to reuse and reface existing materials wherever possible rather than replace, adding a strong element of sustainability.
Michel added, “We wanted to be in the downtown area and when this opportunity came up it was the ideal situation.
“Bend Downtown Business Association has also been supportive as part of working on diversifying the downtown scene and we are excited to be something of a pioneer in this respect.
“We are also happy to contribute to the local economy and create jobs, as we believe strongly in the importance of being part of the community for the long haul.”
Another connection to the community will be the showcasing of local artists who can expose and market their work; the first being Melinda Lappin, who prints her photographs on metal to create a unique perspective.
The space has also been transformed in other ways, including the introduction of warm earthy color tones that create an inviting atmosphere.
Michel added, “We were fortunate to work with a contractor like DE Rink Construction who understood what we were aiming for and put their skills and expertise to work to translate the vision into reality.
“It was real pleasure to work with David and his crew, and I am happy to say that through the experience we have developed into personal friends. They articulated the vision and offered a personal touch, and we found that they had a value system that worked well with ours.
“It was really a collaboration of the whole team to optimize the project and hopefully there will be more ventures to come.
“We want this place to be like the ‘Cheers’ environment where everyone knows your name, and we like everyone to know our names.”
Original cabinets were refaced rather than replaced, and the interior also includes a saloon style door at the kitchen counter to give “just a little touch of the old West.”
David Rink added, “I should add that the City proved they are ‘open for business’ and it was a positive collaborative experience on what was a relatively small but technical remodel project.
“We also endeavored to employ sustainable methods wherever possible, including reusing products and materials that were existing versus replacement.
“The remodel primarily consisted of expanding the cooking line and hood system for the addition of a larger grill/range and Kronomatic broilers for cooking the shawerma. Other work included refacing the service counter, refinishing existing wood floors, painting and creating improved customer flow.
“I appreciate Michel as a good businessman and it was also pleasure to work with someone with such honesty and integrity. Doing business with Michael and Maxine has been a personal pleasure and I want to invite everyone to come and meet them and to enjoy some very healthy home recipe food.”
The Downtown Bend Business Association recently announced that ten new businesses had started up in the retail/restaurant sector in the first quarter of this year, many more relocating within downtown, with the current occupancy rate holding at 92 percent.
DBBA Executive Director Chuck Arnold said, “This is our most active quarter on record since we started tracking occupancy more than five years ago.
“We have never seen so many businesses start up in one quarter. This reflects positively on the vibrancy of downtown as new businesses are eager to locate here.”
Arnold also reported on the increasing health of sales and the variety of new business additions, adding, “Year over year sales for existing businesses have edged upward slightly for the third consecutive quarter. This is another indicator that Downtown Bend is continuing to see moderate, but sustained growth and the further development of a dynamic district.
“The business diversity is reflected in the varieties of new food offerings coming to downtown which include inspirations from Spain, Peru, France, and the Mediterranean.”