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First look: Zaya

New Mediterranean in Inman Park

Inman Park's outermost boundary on the west, North Highland Avenue, has been transforming into condos and commercial venues for more than a year. Inman Perk, one of the city's coolest coffee houses, has moved from its gloomy Elizabeth Street location to a window-walled spot on North Highland. The Grape continues to rain its purple light onto the sidewalk across from Fritti and Sotto Sotto.

The latest restaurant to open in the area, in the same building as Inman Perk, is Zaya Mediterranean Cuisine (240 N. Highland Ave., 404-477-0050). It's been open only a few weeks, so consider this a first look.

We visited on a Saturday night and found the restaurant humming but not packed. Indeed, when we asked for a table for two, we were told there would be a wait of about 10 minutes. Surveying the dining room, I saw numerous vacant tables. I looked at the host, who smiled prettily. I looked at Wayne, who shrugged. We took seats at the bar and looked around.

It's a nice-looking space. There's lots of wood and shiny granite, interestingly textured walls, the obligatory open kitchen, and suspended orange lampshades that cast a firelike glow. It's cozy and sophisticated-feeling. The crowd is a convivial mix of the chilled-out older, the hair-gelled younger and parents with toddlers. We enjoyed being seated after our obligatory 10-minute wait at a table next to a couple with two young children. Mama was determined to teach the older kid, about 5, how to sit upright in his chair, eat with a fork, and quit waving at me while food fell from his mouth.

Speaking of which, we've had some controversy on our blog, OmnivoreAtl.com, about children in restaurants. The menu at the new Grant Park restaurant Stella includes charm school-type advice for children. I do not understand people's objection to kids in restaurants. One of the pleasures of eating at our neighborhood pizzeria, Grant Central, is encountering little people. Sometimes they do get rowdy, but they are easy to tackle. Anyway, we saw no tantrums at Zaya.

The restaurant's menu is huge, so I can't make a complete evaluation on the basis of one experience. We ate four mezze (small plates), one entrée and two desserts.

There is only one mezze platter available and it's all the usual clichés like hummus, baba ghanuj and falafel. To try anything different you will need to order a la carte. That's fine, but the not-so-small plates are obviously meant for two. Ordinary eaters – not professional gluttons like us – won't get to sample much of the menu.

There were hits and misses at our table. Chunks of lamb in a taratour sauce, a spicy tahini with pine nuts, was probably my favorite of the starters. Next was a trio of sambousek – flaky, deep-fried pastries filled with ground beef, onions and pine nuts. Its sauce, a refreshing mix of cucumber and mint, was especially good.

The eggplant and crab cake was a disappointment. It featured lightly fried cakes of ground eggplant topped with a few flakes of crab and a dollop of buttery sauce. The crab was virtually tasteless and didn't even supply much of a textural contrast to the relentless eggplant cakes – all three of them.

I hesitated before ordering the "drunken Halloumi," a Cypriot cheese seared in olive oil, flambéed with ouzo and served over tomato slices. I did not want to be subjected to the showy ritual of the cheese being carried through the dining room on fire while everyone screamed "Opa!" Our server, who looked like the young Lily Tomlin, swore that wouldn't happen. And it didn't.

However, the cheese arrived with the consistency of cheap taffy, served over pink, mealy tomato slices. I wondered if the flambé had occurred hours earlier.

Wayne ordered our lone entrée – a plate of noodles with lamb sausage, beef and tomatoes. It was oily – like most Mediterranean food – but quite tasty.

Other entrees include various cuts of lamb, rotisserie chicken, seared scallops, schawarma, kabobs and fish. There are a bunch of salads and many more small plates.

The highlight of the meal was a Lebanese dessert, ashta, that combines the best of everything. It's an eggless custard, not very sweet, contained inside a free-form Sputnik of crispy phyllo, flavored with the essence of orange blossoms. Wayne ordered that while I was stuck with the baklava – two finger-shaped pieces of the stuff. It was likeable enough, as Barack said to Hillary, but you'll hate yourself if you order it instead of the ashta.

In Cabbagetown

Cabbagetown is still reeling from the devastation wrought by the March 14 tornado that tore through there. I'm happy that many of the businesses on Carroll Street weren't affected.

Still, dining at the Carroll Street Café (208 Carroll St., 404-577-2700) one night last week felt a bit like partying in a graveyard. That's partly my morbid imagination at work – Oakland Cemetery, right down the street, suffered a huge amount of damage.

We had a mediocre meal. The restaurant began serving tapas as well as its regular menu and specials quite a while ago. This was our first time trying them. Frankly, I wouldn't bother. A thin, crispy cheese pizza would be fine with a tomato sauce that didn't scream, "I'm canned!" Thai beef had none of the subtlety of the real thing, but enough salt to cure a ham. Lox atop "boats" of cucumber was just plain bad sculpture.

On the other hand, my special of roasted leg of lamb, served with mashed potatoes and haricots verts was satisfying, but honestly not near the quality of the lamb tenderloin I ate a week earlier at the Glenwood in East Atlanta Village.

The café looks fabulous, however. It's the most intimate dining spot in the Grant Park-Cabbagetown area, full of candlelight, art and pleasant staffers. And the brown sugar cappuccino is delish.



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