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Milwaukie couple opens Mezza Restaurant in Woodstock

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Joris Barbaray and his wife, Gisella, met at Val Thorens, a French ski resort, where he was a chef and she was a resort manager for a ski company. What followed in their lives was six years of working and traveling all around the United Kingdom, where Gisella had lived since she was 11, and then more travel to India, North Africa and Spain.

PHOTOS BY DICK TRTEK - Co-owner of Mezza, Joris Barbaray, fires up the blowtorch to finish off a creme brulee, while his son, Tristan, watches.“Both of us worked in the food industry while in the U.K., I as delicatessen manager of my family’s deli and catering company, and Joris as owner of his own deli and catering service, as well as stints as head chef at a caterer and an English pub. We traveled in the U.K. and abroad during our vacations,” Gisella said.

So how did this young couple, both now 34, end up living in Milwaukie and owning Mezza Restaurant at 5520 S.E. Woodstock Blvd.?

“In London I had a French delicatessen, but when our son was born, we decided we wanted to live some place that was not as busy or expensive as London,” Joris said, adding that the couple’s aim was always to have their own restaurant.

They chose to focus on the West Coast, because Gisella’s mother originally was from San Francisco, and they had friends and family living in Portland and other parts of the Pacific Northwest.

They ultimately settled in Portland, partly because it’s not as big as San Francisco and partly because of the food scene here.

The couple bought a house in Milwaukie a year ago and live there with son, Tristan, now 2, and their 2-month-old daughter Olivia.

“With a young family we don’t need [the pace of] a big city, and here we have the river, the woods, a ski resort and the sea, and all the food that comes from the sea,” Joris said.

Four seasons

Because Portland is on the same latitude as France, we have the same seasons, Joris said, adding, “We have the same vegetables, and the wine is the same. It’s good to work around the four seasons.”

Before opening Mezza, Joris worked as a chef at St. Jack, a neighborhood cafe specializing in rustic French cuisine, which opened first at Southeast 20th Avenue and Clinton Street, and then subsequently moved to Northwest 23rd last February.

“I saw what it was like to have a neighborhood restaurant; the coziness of it,” Joris said.

In the more than two years since they have been in Portland, the couple has seen a lot of changes that have happened really fast, including the evolution of the restaurant business.

“When we saw Mezza on the market it was really close to home, and the area is really alive. It is getting better and better, and we want to be part of this, to be a new face in this area,” he said. The couple opened the restaurant last October.

“The business association here is really active, and it looks like planning for [the growth of] the Woodstock area is coming this way,” Gisella said.

PHOTOS BY DICK TRTEK - Gisella Barbaray, co-owner of Mezza, pours a glass of wine; she and her husband, Joris, Milwaukie residents, opened Mezza in October of 2015.Mediterranean ‘with a twist’

For years Mezza was a Middle Eastern restaurant, and Joris has kept some of the items from the former menu, while adding dishes that reflect both his French heritage and his travel experiences.

“This is not a classic French bistro — I will keep some of the traditional dishes, but nothing fancy. I like to play with Greek, Lebanese and Italian cuisines. This is really Mediterranean food with a French twist,” he said.

“I’ve kept the wraps from the old menu; I love to play with dough, and pitta bread is so spontaneous. We give the wrap a French touch, by adding more vegetables,” he said.

“All my food is simple; I use garlic, nutmeg and cloves to bring out the perfume of the gratin [potatoes] and make the dish a little more earthy,” Joris said.

Favorite dishes

Gisella’s favorite dish on the menu right now is a cassoulet, a classic stew made from white beans and duck confit.

“It is an iconic dish from Southwest France” traditionally served in the winter, she said.

“Confit is a piece of meat that is slowly cooked. It cooks for five hours, and while it cooks, a golden crust is created,” Joris said.

He, of course, likes all the dishes on the menu, but noted that customer favorites include the Mezze platter and the lamb.

The Mezze platter is meant to be shared. It is a vegetarian dish that comes with dips, including houmous, houriya, tzatziki, aubergine caviar, felafels, olives, crudités and pitta.

Because of its popularity, “we are adding three more sharing platters: a paté platter with duck rillettes and chicken liver mousse, pickles and crostini; a salmon platter with dill-cured salmon, salmon rillette, arugula and beetroot salad and crostini; and a baked Camembert with the cheese baked with white wine and garlic, and crostini,” Gisella said.

As for the leg of lamb dish, it marinates for 12 hours in Marsala wine and spices, and is a mix between French and Italian cooking, Joris said.

“I sear the lamb and it cooks back into the wine for three to four hours; the wine reduction is juicy from the meat and boozy from the Marsala,” he added.

Joris noted that the quality of the meat he serves is of the utmost importance to him, especially since he grew up in the countryside near Bergerac, La Dordogne, and his father was a butcher.

“Portlanders love to know where their food comes from, and I want them to know the lamb comes from this area and not from far away,” he said.

Future plans

“We are planning to start doing a weekend French-style brunch by the end of February, and we hope to add a new cocktail menu,” Gisella said.

“We are working mainly with a French wine supplier, Le Petit Monde, who sources their wines exclusively from France and Italy and the owner is also French,” she added.

“In December we had a special four-course dinner and that went really well, so we will have a Valentine’s Day dinner with wine pairings,” Joris said.

He added, “This is a family-style business and we take comments from people. We’d like to transfer a bit more personality to the atmosphere, and we want to work with what people tell us. It’s about the food; I come out of the kitchen and chat to customers to help me find out what locals are looking for in a neighborhood restaurant.”

Mezza Restaurant

Where: 5520 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., Portland

Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Call: 503-777-6399

Website: Visit mezzapdx.com to see complete menus, including a special Valentine’s Day menu.

n Lunch menu items include the vegetarian Mezze platter to share, $13; beef, chicken, falafel and lamb pitta wraps, from $9 to $11; quiche and croque monsieur, $8;

n Moroccan burger, $13; and cassoulet, $16.

n Dinner items include the Mezze platter, a paté platter, salmon platter and baked Camembert, each $13; cassoulet, $16; lamb confit, $17; entrees from the grill, ranging in price from $12 to $19; and a wild mushroom ragu with herbed polenta for $13.

Desserts include: A poached pear, chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream sundae, $6; dark chocolate mousse, $6; and creme brulee, $6.