Mediterranean is one cuisine Atlanta could use more of. There are a few fantastic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern eateries around town, and if you're willing to travel to Sandy Springs we're blessed with Persian food of uncommon quality. But basic, decent Lebanese and Greek food isn't easy to find, especially as midpriced, family dining.
Zaya, the new Mediterranean restaurant on North Highland Avenue right where Inman Park meets the Old Fourth Ward, aims to fill that gap. But rather than emulate the casual family restaurants that are the norm for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern eateries in other cities, Zaya is more swank and upscale, with an earthy cocktail lounge decor that isn't huge on personality but seems designed to sooth the eye and the disposition. There's a slight disconnect here for Atlanta – I'd like to say "Mediterranean goes upscale," but because we've missed the proliferation of more casual places it seems like we've skipped a step.
But that's not Zaya's fault. The business is owned by 3 of a Kind Restaurant Group, which is responsible for the Byblos restaurants in New Orleans. This is the group's 10th restaurant but its first Atlanta venture. The menu is kind of like a "greatest hits" of eastern Mediterranean foods: hummus, shawarma, falafel, kabobs, spanakopita. Prices are higher than the norm for falafel and hummus, but lower than many trendy intown eateries.
The driving force of Zaya's appeal is its small plates; eggplant moussaka is a sweet, rich, tomatoey eggplant stew rather than the layered Greek version, but whatever it is it's delicious. Tahini-rich baba ghanoush and thick, substantial and smooth hummus are drizzled in paprika and olive oil. Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) have an almost overwhelming tartness that's nicely calmed by the sweet notes in the filling. A dish of chorizo in a tomato-and-onion sauce is smoky and savory.
Small triangles of spanakopita are a little light on the spinach filling, relying on crunchy phyllo to provide pleasure, but as nibbly snacks they succeed.
Zaya has hit on a winning formula for many of its small dishes, but some of them could still use some tinkering. Falafel has good flavor, but the exterior goes beyond crisp and into hard, hockey-puck territory. The kafta, a mixture of ground lamb and pine nuts coated in chick-pea flour and fried, is totally bland. Drunken halloumi sees the mild Greek cheese melted over the top of tomatoes, but the tomatoes are mealy and flabby, the worst example of out-of-season tepidness. Razor-thin fried eggplant arrives from the kitchen crispy and looking like wide strips of bacon. The first few bites, dipped in tahini, are addictive, but as soon as the eggplant starts to cool the greasiness factor (a mouthful of lukewarm squirting oil) becomes horrifyingly apparent.
Entrees lack finesse and variety. They're mainly grilled in an uninteresting spice mix and served with a mound of rice and a pool of hummus. Lamb chops are oversalted and overcooked, and salmon, shrimp skewers and beyond seem to follow suit.
Shawarma, offered with the choice of beef or chicken, is pleasant enough, but neither variety is particularly juicy, and the mix of spices is fairly tame for what should be a raucous and spicy dish. In general, the way to a satisfying meal at Zaya is to stick with the small plates.
The winning equation on the dessert menu is when the kitchen uses some Middle Eastern influence and ads a twist. Both the strictly traditional (dryish, boring baklava) and the gooey American (Key lime pie, molten chocolate cake) fall short, but a cheesecake flan borrows inspiration from sweeter, Lebanese custards, American cheesecake and French brûlée.
Friendly and enthusiastic service helps set the tone, and a smart wine list doesn't go anywhere outrageous but has enough variety to hold most people's interest. It would be nice to see something on the mainly American and Italian list from Greece and Lebanon to complement the food. But in all aspects, Zaya plays it safe rather than pushing toward authenticity or extremes.
There's really nothing wrong with playing it safe. Zaya has managed to synthesize Mediterranean food into something that a broad swath of palates will enjoy, in a setting that befits this shiny new condo neighborhood. It plays like a compilation CD of summer jams – some anthems, some flops and some places where familiarity alone is a comfort.
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