People are calling Epice, the sleek Lebanese bistro in 12South, the antidote to local-food overdose. Maher Fawaz calls it his vision of a street scene in Europe or the Middle East. Fawaz would know. He lived in both places before settling in Nashville 30 years ago and launching the beloved Kalamatas restaurants in Green Hills, Brentwood and Belmont.
If you look through Epice's dining room just right — squint your eyes and think worldly thoughts — the chic shotgun of concrete, stacked stone and white marble can sort of remind you of an outdoor cafe on a side street in, say, Beirut or Grenoble, both former homes of Fawaz. When the sliding glass doors open onto a tailored front patio this spring, the illusion promises to be even more convincing.
The name, pronounced "ay-PEACE," means "spice" in French. That explains the vibrant and bountiful mounds of loose turmeric, thyme and paprika that adorn shelves over the gleaming open kitchen. Fawaz says he asked architect Patrick Avice du Buisson to create a stripped-down palette that would showcase, not compete with, the flavors of his traditional cuisine. The resulting structure exceeded the assignment.
And Epice's culinary team — comprising several Fawaz family members — also surpasses expectations.
With Kalamatas' casual ordering system, kid-friendly chicken-and-rice, self-service drinks, plastic forks and BYOB policy so firmly etched in the dining consciousness, it's worth resetting expectations when it comes to Fawaz's second act. There is almost no overlap between the concepts, down to the detail that Kalamatas's hummus is lemony, while Epice's version is laced with tahini. (One thing they have in common: Fawaz makes them both.)
Epice is a full-service restaurant — not white-tablecloth, but food-forward and date-worthy, with Mediterranean wines on offer and reservations a good idea. Lunch prices range from $5 for lentil-chard soup to $17 for salad topped with grilled tenderloin.
We started with a shared platter of al-raheb, smashed roasted eggplant. Bright with citrus, the rough purée was topped with pomegranate seeds and served with spice-dusted pita chips and soft triangles of toasted pita. Sfeeha — flatbread topped with Lebanese cured beef, melted Mediterranean cheeses and thyme, sumac and sesame — was reminiscent of a personal pizza, but with a supple and stretchy hand-rolled dough.
On the succinct roster of entrées, two fish dishes were distinctly different. Samak was a spice-dusted and toothsome (if slightly overcooked) fillet of grilled fish (salmon on our visit), plated with oven-roasted potato strips, tossed green salad and toasted triangles of crusty rustic toast. Sayadeya was more of a comfort food, with flaky white fish (barramundi on our visit) topped with a velvety tahini-based and cumin-infused tarator sauce and plated with a medley of rice and vermicelli.
Think of kafta as Mediterranean sliders, two small patties of grilled ground sirloin plated with pita, tossed salad and the oven-roasted potatoes. (If the shape of the oven-roasted potatoes makes you crave ketchup in the same way the William Tell Overture cues The Lone Ranger in your mind, ask the server for a ramekin of roasted red pepper sauce.)
Many items are available at both lunch and dinner, including fatayer (an assortment of pastries filled with spinach, cheese and beef); kibbeh (crisp kumquat-sized pods of ground sirloin coated in bulgur wheat and fried to a greaseless bronze); and hummos Beyrouti (chickpea purée topped with braised ground sirloin and peanuts). The last of these dishes is listed among entrées, but in future we will order it as a shared appetizer.
The sight of chef Will Zaitz in the open kitchen French-trimming rack of lamb for the evening's lahmeh entrée had us scheduling an evening visit before we finished lunch. Dinner is a more expensive affair, with entrées ranging from grilled vegetable skewers ($14) to rack of lamb ($29). The latter is a showstopper, encrusted with pistachios, cooked to succulent pink and plated with roasted potatoes, asparagus and a tangy-sweet reduction of pomegranate molasses.
Cassoulet offers a less-sweet version of lamb, with a shank braised to buttery tenderness and served on a stew of tomato, carrots and al dente navy beans, along with crisp grilled asparagus. Unlike so many stews and braises, Epice's cassoulet and shank has a verdant, springlike freshness, thanks to a generous garnish of fresh chopped herbs and bouquets of tender mint.
The hidden treasure of the menu just might be mishwe, which under-promises "tenderloin brochette" and over-delivers a grilled 8 ounces of beef filet drizzled with roasted red pepper sauce and plated with potatoes for $24.
Dining at Epice can feel like a family affair, with Maher and his sister Ghada circulating the dining room; Ghada's husband, chef Will Zaitz, and Maher's wife, Kitty, preparing dinners and desserts based on Fawaz family recipes; and Kalamatas co-owner Beth Collins (Fawaz considers her as family) chipping in with rice pudding and fig vinaigrette. But some servers we encountered were unable to answer many questions about the menu. (And Epice's menu — peppered with batinjan, mujadara and makdous and dusted with za'atar — raises a lot of questions.) A suggestion we're making increasingly often, as quality and variety of cuisine rise across town, is to prepare staff members with a more comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire.
Given Kalamatas' refrigerated shelves of indulgent cheesecake, mousse and baklava, we weren't surprised to see worthwhile calories on the dessert menu at Epice. Even so, Nashville native Kitty Fawaz's confections were surprisingly elegant in their presentation. The standout was katayef, handmade half-moons of pastry stuffed with sweet cheese and walnuts. When reminiscing about the exquisite katayef, we found ourselves describing it as the hybrid of two disparate deliacies: a fried pie made out of a crêpe. It's a fusion that makes perfect sense at Epice, where the Fawaz family blends Old and New World flavors into a local dining landmark.
Epice is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.