I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised at how utterly lackluster Taze Mediterranean Street Food is. After all, a place that is basically the "Chipotle of Middle Eastern food" doesn't exactly inspire hope for authenticity. I doubt that anyone has mistaken the burrito chain for real Mexican cuisine.
But I had hopes. Some of them were admittedly grounded in a romanticized nostalgia for the fast-casual Middle Eastern food I lived off of in graduate school — though a fast-casual Middle Eastern concept beyond the mom-and-pop gyro joint is new to St. Louis, a similar restaurant called Garbanzo has been out West for several years.
Others, though, were based in reality. Owners Casey and Justin Roth seemed to do everything right. The brothers took their concept seriously enough to embark on a research and development tour of the Mediterranean to learn about the flavors they hoped to re-create at their restaurant. They coughed up the dough for prime space inside the Mercantile Exchange Building, and even hired the geniuses at SPACE Architecture + Design to do their magic on the interior.
Walking into Taze, you could be forgiven for having elevated expectations. The interior is gorgeous, with polished blond wood ceilings, walls and countertops, and a shiny stainless-steel open kitchen with giant, rotating spits of glistening meat. Metallic light fixtures hang from the soaring ceilings, and the burnt-orange-hued walls display modern watercolor-style paintings that would seem at home in at a museum. If the saying is true that you eat with your eyes, Taze is a glorious feast.
But tastebuds matter, and unfortunately, Taze's efforts do not result in good food.
Taze's concept seems simple: choose either pita, rice or greens as the base, and then top it with chicken, beef and lamb, falafel or portabella mushrooms. As you move down the line, the workers add any number of Middle Eastern-inspired toppings and sauces. The options are numerous, which is great in theory, but it ends up muddying the plate. As meat and sauces and sides and garnishes and hummus get piled on one after the other, you end up with an amalgam of flavors that don't always mesh. This is why Chipotle is actually much smarter than it gets credit for: It's actually not that simple to be simple.
I opted for a bit of everything, assuming that a plethora of condiments would translate into a glorious Middle Eastern feast. Judging from my overflowing platter, it certainly looked that way. But my hopes were instantly dashed at the first bite of falafel — a tasteless, leaden chickpea fritter drenched in a bland white sauce that purported to be tahini but tasted more like thick ranch dressing.
I hoped the dish was a one-off, but sadly most of what I tried at Taze was a parade of disappointment. The beef and lamb gyro meat was crusty, dry and under-seasoned. Ditto for the sinewy chicken gyro. The tandoor beef was slightly better. It was at least moist and had a hint of cumin spice, although it lacked salt.
The one main course option that works at Taze is the chicken tandoor. The juicy hunks of meat picked up the predominately cumin spice blend, and though it too needed salt, I found it enjoyable placed atop the saffron rice.
Sauce offerings, for the most part, did little to enhance the lackluster meats. The creamy cucumber and yogurt tzatziki was the most palatable, followed by the harissa (though it tasted like someone had squirted sriracha into ketchup). The mango sauce was gluey and flavorless, and the aforementioned tahini hadn't the slightest hint of sesame — the main component in this quintessential Middle Eastern condiment.
It hurts my soul to write that something has too much garlic. Yet in the case of Taze's hummus, pea-sized hunks of the "stinking rose" flecked the otherwise bland and cement-like chickpea purée. It was off-putting. The hummus comes in a few different flavors, including an innocuous balsamic and "caramelized" onion version (and by caramelized, they apparently mean diced and raw).
Other side dishes fared much better. Fresh lemon juice enlivened a beet and feta cheese salad, giving a pleasant tart counter to the vegetable's natural sweetness. Creamy baba ganoush was infused with smoke from charred eggplant, and the tabouleh, flecked with mint, tomatoes and cucumbers, was one of the restaurant's more flavorful items. The side of roasted eggplant was completely unexpected. I anticipated actual pieces of the vegetable, but the dish arrived instead as a tart, earthy tomato-based dip, speckled with (just the right amount of) garlic. I was impressed.
In the evenings, Taze offers additional dishes like flatbread, spiced shrimp, meatballs and hummus samplers to appeal to a nighttime crowd. Wine and beer are also available, though I have to question whether creating a second identity as a tapas and drinks spot is the right move. Remember the lesson learned from Chipotle: Sometimes simpler is better.
And I wouldn't recommend coming here for dessert. If baklava came out of vending machines, it would probably taste a lot like Taze's version: dry, bland and chewy. I took one bite and was so disappointed, I was prompted to leave the restaurant and head around the block to Yiro/Gyro, the other fast-casual Middle Eastern spot that opened roughly the same time as Taze. Surely, it had to be better.
And it was — much. And so is Medina Mediterranean Grill, which I previously reviewed positively, and which is located mere blocks away.
The fact that the three similar concepts all opened within a few weeks of one another, all within a radius of a few miles, means that Taze will have to step up its game if it wants to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, its current distinguishing factor is that it's the one with the least tasty food. And that is no way to compete.
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