Zara Mediterranean Cuisine
Where: 1498 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.779.0222
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, open until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Parking is validated in the adjacent Pacific Avenue garage and Commerce Street lot.
Cuisine: Traditional Mediterranean, Greek, Turkish and Lebanese. Steaks, seafood, salads, appetizers, hearty sandwiches (think gyro), kebabs and Greek casserole.
Scene: Hotel employees and guests, business professionals and those on dates are split between a spacious dining room and the round bar with a bird's eye view of Pacific Avenue.
Drinks: Full bar, beer and wine, specialty cocktails, Turkish coffee and standard non-alcoholic drinks
Prices: $8-$39 at dinner, $11-$15 at lunch
ANNOUNCER: With authenticity as the goal, Samar Hamameh, a Middle Eastern woman from Jordan, came to teach the kitchen staff at Zara Mediterranean how to prepare traditional Greek, Lebanese and Turkish dishes. The restaurant's location, at the corner of 15th and Pacific Avenue on the second floor above Rainier Umpqua Bank in downtown Tacoma, can make it easy to miss. Chef James Barbara is no longer at Zara. Owner Haitham Joudeh takes the helm in the kitchen, as the recipes were his to begin with. Jason De Paul and Weekly Volcano food and lifestyle writer Jennifer Johnson sampled a handful of dishes over the course of a few visits (together and with other dining partners). Johnson is graciously filling in for Jake De Paul this week.
JENNIFER JOHNSON: After my first visit to Zara, I stated that, "tzatziki makes the world go round." Visiting at lunch, the cucumber garlic yogurt sauce was just about all I got to enjoy. Service was so slow that there was only time for the spread trio of baba ghanouj, hummus, tzatziki and warmed pita. Sitting at an empty table smelling the herbs, meat and spices in the air was torture. The dips were good, but nothing out of the ordinary.
JASON DE PAUL: I was victim of slow service, too. It's odd and frustrating since not once was the restaurant even half full. It seems Zara is for patient, leisurely dining. Subtle lemon set off grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables in Zara's dolmades. Kibbeh (spiced bulgar wheat balls) were deeply browned on the outside. A garlicky yogurt sauce served on the side worked well in conjunction with the meaty flavors of the moist, seasoned mix of lamb, beef and white onion that made up the filling. Pine nuts added a welcome crunch.
JOHNSON: I found service at dinner to be better. Greek bruschetta is a toasted baguette with chunked Greek salad on top. Grilled octopus appetizer is a salad itself, with sliced pieces of slightly chewy tentacle served with mixed greens dressed conservatively in zesty olive oil. I immediately picked out lemon, mild garlic and pepper. Simple tabouleh salad wraps were an instant favorite of mine back in August when the restaurant first opened; they're just as good now. Mint and parsley dominated the flavor playing field, followed by lemon, garlic, cucumber, onion and earthy bulgar wheat.
DE PAUL: The mixed grill kebab entrée of smoky lamb, spiced beef and chicken is tender and served off the skewer atop a bed of cinnamon spiked seasoned rice. Sadly, during my experience, the rice cooled so quickly it was completely cold after just a few bites. Luckily the wait staff quickly brought a new steaming platter of rice. From the skewers, red bell pepper, mushroom, white onion and zucchini are roasted lightly - retaining a nice snap.
JOHNSON: The T-bone lamb chop entree arrived with three chops the size of a child's fist - proving to be more than enough meat. Plump and exactly medium as ordered, lamb gave easily at knife's touch and melted in my mouth. A smattering of fat provided additional "wow" factor to the already huge flavors in the pomegranate demi-glace. I sighed with pleasure as I ate this dish; it was that good. Rosemary roasted potatoes and asparagus were excellent breaks from the potent richness of the meat. During dinner, the belly dancers, though skilled and beautiful, seemed to make people uncomfortable. I'm not sure the dancers fit with the upscale Mediterranean restaurant that Zara is striving to be.
DE PAUL: I didn't mind the dancers at all when I went with the fellas and sat in the circular bar - no surprise there. But with my wife along I felt weird. I didn't know where to look. As for dessert, I knew exactly what to do: skip the trucked-in stuff. House-made baklava with pistachios is the way to go. I loved the pistachio saltiness and thought it leveled out the syrupy sweet honey glaze. Once you go pistachio, you never go back.