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Originally from Lebanon, Wassim Matar opened Phoenician Taverna in 2012.
MASON, Ohio - Opened in 2012, the eatery offers Lebanese cuisine, from mezza to kebbeh, and invites diners to make themselves at home.
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MASON, Ohio - This weekly column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.
Where: 7944 S Mason Montgomery Road, Mason Website: www.phoeniciantaverna.com Food: Mediterranean, specializing in authentic Lebanese cuisine Prices: Entrees range from $10 - $23
Phoenician Taverna offers more than thirty varieties of appetizers, called mezza, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. All mezza items are freshly made at the restaurant, including the lamb and beef sausages.
The vegetarian mezza include falafel (chickpea fritters), baba ghannouge (eggplant dip), and kibbeh laketeen (pumpkin kibbeh).
The pumpkin kibbeh has a shell of crushed wheat and pumpkin, filled with walnuts, pomegranate reduction, onion and spices.
The non-vegetarian mezza include shawarma, a vertical rotisserie of alternately layered slices of lamb and beef, or all slices of chicken. Kibbeh nayeh (lamb tartare) is also on the menu. It is a traditional Lebanese dish of ground raw lamb, crushed wheat, spices and herbs, with a drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
The bread is made from scratch daily at the restaurant.
Meet the owner
"When customers come to my restaurant, it's like having people coming over to my house," Wassim Matar (left) smiled. "For me, it's fun. I enjoy it. It's in my blood."
Matar, originally from Lebanon, came to the United States as a student. His love for food led him straight to the business of food. He is very fond and proud of the time he managed the Lebanese Taverna in Washington D.C.
"The restaurant was voted the number one family-owned restaurant in the Washington metropolitan area two years in a row. Today, the same family still owns the restaurant, but now, they have grown to eleven locations in the D.C. area," Matar said.
Matar made the journey to Cincinnati when his wife transferred here for her job. After a settling period, Matar again felt his calling.
"My heart has always been in the kitchen," he explained.
In August 2012, Matar opened Phoenician Taverna in Mason. The chef, Hassib Alaouie (above, at right), is a restaurant veteran who is also from Lebanon.
"Food in Lebanon is a big deal," Matar said. "It's more like a celebration on a daily basis. I want to duplicate that experience here."
"Lebanese cuisine is the art of simplicity," Matar explained. "The food is not complicated and you cannot mask it. If it's fresh, it shows. If it's not fresh, it also shows."
"Lebanon, being a small country, has the luxury of short distances. Food is very local and fresh. Fish that is swimming in the morning is said to be eaten at lunch."
Matar takes freshness seriously.
"We do not buy any prepared products. Everything - with the exception of ice-cream - is freshly made at the restaurant," Matar said.
Mezza is central to Lebanese cuisine.
"Think of the appetizers as the color palette, and your plate as the canvas. Just as you mix colors to create new colors, you would mix the different appetizers to get new flavors."
Matar went on to explain how the flavors are different when falafel is eaten with baba ghannouge, and with tabouleh.
"You can eat your entire meal without two bites being the same."
Almost everything is prepared with extra virgin olive oil. Matar knows good extra virgin olive oil; his family still owns an olive tree plantation in Lebanon. Matar said the cuisine also uses a fair share of garlic, lemon, parsley, eggplant and spices.
"Our cuisine is not overly spiced. The spices complement the flavor and allow the ingredients to shine."
Spices typical of Lebanese cuisine include black pepper, all spice, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and sumac.
By the way
The Lebanese coffee served at the restaurant is made from organic coffee beans ground in-house. It is roughly as strong as espresso, and comes in a demitasse, a small cup used to serve espresso. Traditional Lebanese coffee comes with a touch of cardamom, and is sweetened to order. Matar notes that unlike many other countries in the Middle East, coffee is more popular than tea in Lebanon.
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek