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Milwaukie couple turns "Mezza" French, on Woodstock Boulevard

PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - Joris Barbaray, co-owner of Mezza Restaurant in Woodstock, shows his son, Triatan, how to use a blowtorch to finish off a crème brulee. Joris Barbaray and his wife, Gisella, met at Val Thorens, a French ski resort, where he was a chef and she was the 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.

“Both of us worked in the food industry while in the UK; I as delicatessen manager of my family's deli and catering company, and Joris as owner of his own deli and caterer, as well as stints as head chef at a caterer and an English Pub. We travelled in the UK and abroad during our vacations,” Gisella says.

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

“In London I had a French delicatessen, but when our son was born, we decided we wanted to live someplace 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 came to the United States and chose to focus on the West Coast, because Gisella's mother was originally from San Francisco, and they had friends and family living in Portland and other parts of the Pacific Northwest.

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

The couple bought a house in Milwaukie a year ago and live there with son, Tristan, now 2 ½, 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 remarks.

Because Portland is at the same latitude as France, we have the same seasons that Joris is used to, he said, adding, “We have here the same vegetables, and the wine is the same. It is good to work around the four seasons.”

Before buying and reopening Mezza, Joris worked as a chef at St. Jack, a neighborhood café specializing in rustic French cuisine, which opened first at S.E. 20th and Clinton Street, and then subsequently moved to Northwest 23rd a year ago.

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

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

“When we saw Mezza on the market, it was really close to home, and the Woodstock 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 explains. The couple reopened 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 observed.

French “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 says.

“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 demonstrates. “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.”

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

“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 says, adding, “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.”

The new Mezza is situated at 5520 S.E. Woodstock Boulevard, and is open noon till 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon until 8:30 p.m. on Sunday — closed on Monday. Call 503-777-6399 for information or reservations. Online at: — where you will find complete menus, including the special Valentine's Day menu.