If your house is in an old neighborhood with uneven sidewalks, poor soil and towering oaks creating shifting patterns of sunlight and shade, it can take some trial and error to figure out your garden. Over years you learn where to plant the roses, where to plant the hydrangeas, and whether the gods of sun and squirrel will allow you to bring any tomatoes to harvest.
So it is for restaurants. Old neighborhood dining spaces beckon enterprising chefs, but it is always hard to determine whether or not a particular concept can flower in an idiosyncratic space.
The dim, elegant cafe space at 560 Boulevard in Grant Park has been sending its siren call to would-be restaurateurs for as long as I’ve lived in Atlanta. With its narrow antechamber opening to a fine dining room with a pressed-tin ceiling, this spot has always seemed the essence of a prime neighborhood hang. I recall it was a French restaurant called Cafe La Glace, Nayarit Taqueria and, in recent years, Solstice Cafe. Now it has become Ziba’s Restaurant & Wine Bar, a place that dabbles broadly in Mediterranean flavors.
The look: Dramatic chandeliers, walls the russet color of raw silk and overstuffed lounge furniture by the front plate windows give off a casual/exotic/quasi-Persian vibe that is instantly comfortable. You would be happy having dinner at that deep wooden bar in the back of the room, or sitting in one of the armchairs by the window and ordering a hookah with flavored tobacco. We opted for a small corner table.
The menu: Goes all over the place, but touches down frequently enough in the Mediterranean region to give it some grounding. There are a dozen “small bites” and a half dozen “big bites,” including lamb chops with grilled vegetable couscous ($18.95), tahini tuna with quinoa tabbouleh ($15.75), and crab cakes with low-country aïoli ($14.95).
We opted to go with small plates. A simple Greek-style chopped salad with feta ($5.25) was tangy and tasty, and we loved the medjool dates stuffed with celery, manchego cheese and almonds ($3.95). A dash of smoked paprika really set the flavors off. A bowl of steamed clams with merguez sausage and feta cheese ($7.50) was wonderful, and we sopped all we could sop with the accompanying pita bread.
A couple of items elicited that “hmm…interesting” faint praise as damnation reaction. Grilled calamari (actually texturized strips of cuttlefish) came with salty olive tapenade and grilled pickled artichoke hearts ($6.50), while Persian meatballs ($5.95) combined beef, lamb, rice and split peas into bready orbs. Still, we appreciated the chef’s efforts to break the mold.
The wine: Many bottles are available for $7 a glass. However, I thought my 3-ounce pour of vinho verde was a bit of a rip. Go by the bottle.
The crowd: Regulars eating at the bar, a couple on a first date, a family with kids, assorted hipsters. Grant Park denizens happy to give this place a chance.
Consider: Dinner Party Roulette. On Saturday night the owners will seat four parties of two at the big communal table and pour a gratis glass of wine to break the ice. Make new friends.