Lucky us, the diners who like to eat out in South Sound. For the last three months, diners have been regaled with the opening of many restaurants with interesting concepts new to Tacoma.
The two most notable openings were the July debut of Social Bar & Grill on the Foss Waterway and the August introduction of Marrow Kitchen Bar on Sixth. Both ambitious restaurants boosted my optimism in Tacoma’s eating landscape and merited favorable praise here and here last month.
Then came the announcement of Zara in the corner space at 15th and Pacific that sat dormant two years too long after Sea Grill closed in 2009.
Zara held promise: It sounded well defined, with a brand-new concept for Tacoma –Eastern Mediterranean cuisine with accents from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. It also seemed a shining companion to neighboring Pacific Grill, one of Tacoma’s finest restaurants and a personal favorite. Zara seemed perched to invigorate downtown when it officially opened Aug. 19.
But three visits left me wanting more. Here is where Zara faltered during my visits: food execution. Trouble brewed in that bustling, beautiful, on-display kitchen. Meat arrived tasting too much of smoke, or it was lukewarm, or it was spongy, or overcooked.
The restaurant does get much right: I was met with pleasantly effusive, polished service on all three visits. The restaurant makeover dazzled, the seafoam theme of Sea Grill replaced by vibrant swirls of muted copper and chocolates, accented by shades of gold. The black table linens were crisp and sharp and the tangible details were fussed over, all the way down to the soaring, theatrical floral arrangements.
But dig beyond the pretty and the shiny to the core of the restaurant – its food – and my experiences showed an uneven kitchen.
The restaurant’s foundation is its shawerma, whole strips of roasted lamb, beef or chicken that is sliced and tucked into a papery-thin, layered flatbread called sharak. A first visit during Zara’s fledgling days brought a lukewarm lamb and beef shawerma sandwich ($11) that tasted saturated with smoke, wrapped in too-chewy flatbread. Opening week jitters? Maybe.
But then, flash-forward three weeks, and the same execution missteps persisted at lunch. The meat this time was chewy dry and the flatbread tasted burned.
Overcooked meat persisted on every visit. At dinner, lamb chops ($29), grilled on the wood fire pit, arrived chewy and tough, the edges too charred to enjoy. The Zara mixed grill kebabs ($24) at dinner also suffered from uneven cooking. The chicken tasted succulent, but the lamb was chewy, the beef dry.
Two entrees sampled did soar. Slow-cooked stifado lamb shank ($14) tasted supple and unctuous, with a salty companion of deeply flavored demi-glace. A lunchtime entree of beautifully grilled medium-rare wild salmon ($16) slathered in sumac-tinged butter was a flavor-packed entree worth your dining dollars.
Lunches and dinners come with sides. The spiced fries with the sandwiches were thumped with aromatic Arabic flavors. The Yukon potatoes with the lamb chops tasted woefully overcooked. The rice with the salmon and slow-cooked lamb could have used a touch more seasoning, and a bit less fat.
Despite the uneven nature of the main dishes, Zara produced deft appetizers. Smoky baba ghanouj eggplant dip ($7) was sublime with just the right hint of lemon and creamy nuttiness from sesame tahini paste; thick yogurt labna dip ($6) topped with pungent black caraway seeds was a tangy yin to the smoky yang of the accompanying grilled flatbread. I could live on those two dips alone.
From the fried-food category, the falafel ($8) crunched with a crispy shell that broke to a fragrant, garlicky spiced chickpea interior. Egg-shaped fried kibbeh ($9) offered supple ground lamb spiked with pine nuts and stuffed into a savory bulgar wheat pastry shell.
Dolmades ($7) – narrow, rolled grape leaves filled with fragrantly scented rice, onions and an assertive kiss of lemon – pleased with a perfectly executed tender, velvety texture. Save for the salad being too wet, the lemony tabouleh lettuce wraps ($8) arrived as a playful presentation: the parsley-spiked bulgar wheat salad doused with mint and lemon arrived atop whole lettuce leaves.
And a final note about the flavors of Zara. Considering the dearth of Mediterranean restaurants in Tacoma, Zara may be the only time diners will get to experience the beauty that is baharat, an aromatic and savory blend of Middle Eastern spices that flavor the bulk of dishes there. I couldn’t get enough of the heady swirl of spices: sumac, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and cumin.
The impressive flavors are brought to you by James Barbara, a chef with longtime ties to Tacoma who formerly cooked at the long-gone Altezzo at the Sheraton. Barbara, who was born into a family of bakers on the East Coast, has been working in restaurants since he was 9 and learned to cook in a kitchen owned by two brothers from Naples. His interest in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine grew while working at an Arabic nightclub and restaurant in Seattle. Zara is owned by Galazios Inc., and is the company’s first restaurant.
Zara Mediterranean Cuisine
Where: 1498 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Hours: Open daily for lunch, happy hour, dinner
Phone: 253-572-1222 or zaracuisine.com (under construction)
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org