You could drop Phoenician Taverna in any city in the world—even Lebanon itself—and the restaurant would thrive.
Luckily for us, its home is Cincinnati. Mason to be specific, which gives it a lunch rush like you wouldn't believe. No wonder the staff gets a three-hour break before dinner service begins; Phoenician Taverna is often at capacity.
Yet it never feels overly crammed. That’s because this place isn’t designed like any other Mason restaurant, though it assuredly is one. No, the layout is more like what you’d find in an upscale restaurant in Hyde Park or OTR, with fine furniture, high-end lighting, and one fashionably exposed kitchen.
Also upscale—and notably authentic—is the Lebanese fare itself, for which we have to thank owner Wassim Matar. Once a manager at Lebanese Taverna, a seriously popular restaurant in Washington D.C., Matar moved to the Queen City in 1997 with his wife when she got a job with Procter & Gamble. (Thus the Mason locale.) Fifteen years later, after the couple had seen their last child through high school, Matar decided to get back into the restaurant world.
The insanely difficult restaurant world, I should say. And it's even harder for ethnic restaurants, especially those serving cuisines as "unforgiving"—Matar's word—as Lebanese. Yes, those first few years were tough.
But then people started to take notice. Indeed, Phoenician Taverna wasn't any ordinary Lebanese place. This food was made entirely in-house, and the flavors popped, and it had the friendliest owner you've ever met.
As to the dishes, we begin with the appetizers, of which you could—and probably should—make an entire meal tapas-style.
The hummus is simply spectacular. It makes Sabra taste like pureed drywall. You should also get the m'hammara, a puree of walnuts, bell pepper, pomegranate reduction, and spices. I’ve likewise heard great things about the baba ghanoush, though if you can only get one other starter I’d recommend the taverna fries served with a show-stealing garlic whip.
As for the entrees (if you actually get to them), the Lebanese dishes you know and love are all well represented and very good. That includes schwarma, shish kebabs, kibbeh, and a life-changing falafel plate. The tabbouleh and the fattoush, both cold vegetable salads, are also great.
You might round out the meal with an order of baklava or um ali, an Egyptian bread pudding. But you’ll probably be so stuffed by then you’ll settle for a cardamom-infused Lebanese coffee instead.
Don’t fret though. Like everything else at Phoenician Taverna, the coffee is exceptionally good.
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Phoenician Taverna is located at 7944 Mason Montgomery Road, Mason. For more information, visit their Facebook.