Wednesday, October 19, 2011

After 25 years with City Club in Lafayette, Ghassan Harb has a simple strategy that keeps his fine-dining patrons returning to Mazen’s Grill.

Ghassan Harb moved from Lebanon to Lafayette to attend what was then called the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where he graduated in engineering. Having no car, he walked to school and to run errands and find work. Somewhere along the road, Harb’s feet took him to City Club, which was located in downtown Lafayette in what is now the Chase Bank building. His English was nonexistent and he was a server.

“No one could understand me!” he says laughing. His youngest son, fittingly a teenager, asks why his father still has an accent after living in America for 30 years. While Lebanon left its mark on Harb in the form of a father country love and his accent, Harb has left his mark on Lafayette. Harb departed City Club several years ago after 25 years — the boy who couldn’t speak English retired as its general manager and helped design its now River Ranch-based location.

Starting in the early ’80s and retiring from City Club in 2005 to open Mazen’s Grill at 5818 Johnston St. a short time later, all the while perfecting his English and his craft while raising three children with his wife, Harb’s path to local restaurant stardom exemplifies that you don’t have to be asleep to believe in the American Dream.

Mazen’s is named after Harb’s dining captain at City Club, Mazen Hijazi, who also left to open his own restaurant. They are 50/50 partners with Hijazi running the Lake Charles Mazen’s and Harb running Lafayette’s. Open now for five years, Mazen’s Grill occupies the building where Woods & Waters Restaurant was, in the southern corner of Lafayette. Its entrance walks you straight into a huge bar of deep woods and fine spirits lined up like jewels in a Tiffany’s showcase. Tables are set with heavy off-white linens and most remarkably the chairs are comfortable. “Most places don’t have nice chairs,” says Harb. “They want to turn the table over [to make customers leave faster]. I say no, people should feel good and stay.” Harb’s staff moves silently, clad in all black as they speak knowingly of Mazen’s menu.

STEAK FENSTERMAKER
Named after a regular customer (surely you can figure this one out!), the local must have had quite the appetite because this steak is huge. Seasoned and grilled bone-in filet that is inches upon inches thick and served with a dash of lemon, this is not a steak you find at a place with peanut shavings on the floor. Those are great steaks. This is a steak you eat with a Scotch and a cigar afterward. This is a steak made for sin, and no one will hold eating it against you.

CRAB CREPES
Crepes are found in both sweet and savory. It is as thin and delicate as lace, a very thin pancake, and its fillings range from fruits to veggies to meats. Crepes are not easy to learn to make, but once you do the hearty globs of undercooked dough on your side plate at most diners won’t hold a candle to crepes. These bits of dough are carefully wound around mouthfuls of lump crab meat covered in Mournay, a white sauce with fine cheese added. Drizzles of lemon butter over the whole shebang place it over the top. A week later and I am still telling people I run into about this dish, often awkwardly. “How’s your mama?” “She’s good, but she wants the crepes at Mazen’s!”

FRIED ASPARAGUS
Asparagus has two things against it: It’s tough to cook correctly and most people hate it, having grown up believing that those limp noodles of chlorophyll found stuffed in cans are what asparagus tastes like. Asparagus done in a good restaurant like this shows that if you cook it slowly then you get a nice firm vegetable that neither wilts in your mouth nor tries to rip your teeth out. This has a nice light batter and makes the asparagus so delicious that even people who think they hate vegetables will love it. And — fried veggies allow you to pretend to be healthy.

FISH DELLA
“Only three restaurants get this fish,” says Harb. “Galatoire’s, Commander’s and me!” This white fish was recommended to Harb by a customer who was an avid fisherman. The flesh is light and buttery, which means it can stand on its own as a delicious fish without too much “fishy” taste, or take in the flavors of any foods or spices served with it. Fish Della is seared and served with lump crab meat so big you need to cut some pieces in half with your fork. What makes this dish is the red pepper hollandaise sauce, light and flavorful and a creamy deep pink.

TOMATO & MOZZARELLA
This dish is encompassed by strips of Romaine served with a Parisian vinaigrette that tastes like a combination of Italian and Caesar dressings; it’s topped with hunky triangles of bold white cheese. Mazen’s specifically describes it as “buffalo” mozzarella. This is the real deal, as having authentic mozzarella is a source of pride in any good restaurant. If it isn’t clearly marked as buffalo you can be sure it’s made from cows’ milk. It’s still delicious but lacks a certain depth, which Mazen’s makes sure to reach. Round wheels of tomato make it a simple and filling side.

Harb came to America to become an engineer, but the job he took to help put himself through school led him to his true passion. Even returning to school 10 years ago for his master’s degree in business didn’t dissuade Harb from what he most loves, the fine dining service industry. “Most places do what they want. I do what the customers want. It’s that simple,” he says. “If customers like something, I put it on the menu. We aren’t doing them a favor by being open — the customers are doing us a favor by coming here and we have to please them.” —Anna Purdy

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