Alex: In the shops at Deerwood Village there is a Mediterranean place called Mandaloun. Their first location was founded initially in London over a decade ago. In 2008, the youngest son, Pierre Barakat, brought their delicious Lebanese cuisine to Jacksonville. We were invited to share a meal with Folio Weekly’s Bite Club, hosted by Caron, and it was a night to remember both in terms of cuisine and ambiance.
The event kicked off with the “happy hour” which gave us all a chance to break the ice with our future co-diners. I was just getting off of work, so cold beer and great company seemed like a good way to end the day. The restaurant itself was tidy and well lit, and several rows of tables had been laid out for the lot of us. Soon enough, dinner was announced and we began the graceful scramble to find proper seating. I found myself near the end next to our friend Cari, a true gastronome on a level that most of us can only aspire to.
The first dish that was brought out was a Mediterranean classic: Hummus and pita bread. This was no store-bought hummus, the ingredients were so fresh that it made me wonder how hard it might be to try and make my own at home.
The next dish, and by far my favorite to say was the baba ghanoush. I’d never really been a fan of eggplant before, simply regarding it as some sort of unholy combination of protein and vegetable. However, this eggplant puree mixed with the same sesame cream and lemon juice as the hummus was absolutely incredible. I managed to scoop up the last few bites of the stuff before the plates were taken away, I’d certainly be interested in trying other dishes with that oblong purple deliciousness in it!
The salads came next. Tabbouleh was a fresh and flavorful departure from all of the bread and pureed vegetables of the first few dishes. The olive oil and lemon dressing was particularly refreshing. However, with great flavor comes great danger, and in this case that danger would be the dreaded Tabouleh Teeth; an unfortunate side effect of herb based salad.
Fattoush is their signature salad, tossed with crispy pita chips and pomegranate dressing. The fresh tomatoes and fruity dressing lend a wonderfully sweet flavor, which flowed perfectly with the black pepper and crispy pita chips. I only managed to get a few delightful helpings, because everyone else seemed to love the salad as much as I did.
Once the plates were cleared away, Pierre came out to make an announcement. We were to have a special surprise. The lights dimmed. As the music started up, a belly dancer with a pair of fan-veils started performing. We clapped along with the music and enjoyed this dancing tradition. After a bit, she started pulling off people at our end of the table and giving impromptu belly dancing lessons. When I was volunteered, I stepped up and did my best, hip thrusts and full body undulations included.
After all of this vegan fare, I was ready to return to my carnivorous (or at least omnivorous) roots with the next dishes. The mixed grill included Lahm Meshwe, Shish Taouk, and Kafta Meshwe. The Lahm was a marinated beef kebab with a delicious and savory sauce that left me feeling a more than a little guilty for eating more than my share. The beef was sandwiched between slices of cooked onion, and there’s nothing I find more appetizing than well-cooked beef and onions. The Taouk was a marinated chicken kebab that was incredibly well seasoned and avoided the dryness so prevalent in most grilled chicken dishes. Their Kafta Meshwe was the final, and perhaps most flavorful, selection. Lamb has such a rich flavor; but mincing and mixing with parsley and onions it really changes the texture of the meat and turns it into something new and interesting, not to mention tasty! Also of special note are the carrots that come with the dish. They are no mere garnish thrown on the plate at last minute to provide a bit of color, but arrive marinated and lightly cooked and I recommend leaving a bit of room between bites of chicken, beef, and lamb.
The last course is always bittersweet, knowing that it is the signal of the end of a great meal and also the sweetest of courses. They served Nammoura, a coconut dessert baked with semolina, and Halawet El Jeben, a sweet cheese roll stuffed with syrup a topped with a bit of lemon flower jam. The Nammoura tasted mostly like a honey-sweetened coconut cake, and I was hard pressed to eat it slowly to really enjoy the flavor and texture. The other dessert was more familiar, and reminded me of a cheese filled crepe with a bit of fruit topping. Overall they were both pleasantly light desserts, as some ridiculously over the top chocolate cake or ice cream would have been utterly out of place with the style of the meal thus far.
Heather: This was no ordinary Bite Club. Not only did we have special entertainment, but the best part of the evening had (almost) nothing to do with food. Two of the greatest people we have the pleasure of knowing got engaged at the event. Words can’t describe how lovely of a proposal Mike gave to Caron, and luckily I don’t have to try. Enjoy this video of Mike’s reason for picking the Bite Club event as the moment to ask the love of his life to marry him. I’m so glad we were there to witness this fantastic event – and thanks to Bite Club and Mandaloun for hosting us!