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First Look: Ziba's Restaurant & Wine Bar

Plus a visit to the Village Jerk in East Atlanta

God, it's a tiny world, the food world. When I entered Ziba's Restaurant & Wine Bar (560 Boulevard, 404-622-4440), I was greeted by a familiar face who turned out to be Marcie Meirndorf, the former manager of Eclipse di Luna. She's opened Ziba's in the spot vacated by Solstice Café; the owners, Eric and Sean, worked for her at Eclipse.

I kept waiting for Paul Luna to step out from behind the bar, too.

Ziba's, which takes its name from the Farsi word for "beautiful," features a Mediterranean menu with 12 small plates and four or five entrées. The young chef, Landon Thompson, who was at Top Flr for a while, emphasizes Middle Eastern ingredients befitting the Farsi name.

We sampled a good bit of the menu and were happy to eat well. Ziba's is across Grant Park from our house. Like many others in the hood, we were sad when Solstice closed. Grant Park has many restaurants now, but few serious ones.

Among the small plates, my favorite was the clams steamed in white wine with onion, garlic and herbs, then garnished with the north African favorite, merguez sausage, and chunks of feta cheese. My only complaint: no bread for sopping the delicious broth.

Next up, steak "chartare," which is chunkily ground beef formed into a patty and seared five seconds on each side, seasoned with a bit of red onion and capers, and topped with a raw quail egg. You scoop up the delicious stuff with crispy toast (which you'll be tempted to also dunk in the clam broth).

We also sampled a bowl of marinated olives, plus Medjool dates stuffed with celery, Manchego cheese, smoked paprika and almonds. I have to say, the dates were my least favorite dish, but I'm not a huge fan of celery. I found the texture of the dates and celery incompatible. Maybe boosting the amount of Manchego would help. But liking celery would help even more.

Our entrées were good. Wayne made the better choice with baby octopus braised in a citrus-spiked seafood broth with clams, fennel and yellow rice. Normally, I prefer octopus grilled, but this was surprisingly tender and the fennel more than compensated for the earlier celery.

My own dish was a deconstructive riff on spanakopita, with chicken added. In Thompson's version, snow-white chicken breasts are rolled around olive tapenade, wrapped in phyllo and served over creamed spinach with feta. I liked the dish, although I found it a bit heavy. That probably has more to do with the enormous portion – a whole breast – than the cooking.

Other entrées available were a grilled flatiron steak and lamb chops. We tried two desserts – strawberry shortcake and chocolate-peanut butter crêpes. I'm the only person in America not enamored of the latter flavor, but the strawberry shortcake was flawless.

The menu will continue to change. We actually dined at the restaurant the first evening it was open to the public. It will have a full bar, but did not yet have a pouring license, so call ahead to check the status if you're thirsty for booze. Meanwhile, you can carry your own bottle of wine.

In East Atlanta Village

"We don't have the jerk soup yet," our server told us. "We're having trouble getting it from our vendor."

From your vendor? In 25-plus years of reviewing restaurants, I don't believe I've ever been told a menu item was unavailable because a vendor had failed to deliver it.

"But you do make everything in-house here, right?" I asked her when I was told the same thing during a visit a few days later.

"Oh, absolutely," she replied.

I'll leave it to readers to divine the meaning of that, but I'll also warn them that the quality of the food at the Village Jerk (1271 Glenwood Ave., 678-705-4585), a new Caribbean and Latino restaurant in East Atlanta Village, is as all over the map as the nations of its inspiration.

The restaurant shares space with My Sister's Room, a club that opens at 10 p.m. most evenings. You can have lunch and dinner at the Village Jerk before then, Monday through Saturday, and you can brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. In the past, some readers have gotten upset when I did not mention the sexual orientation of a venue's clientele. My Sister's Room is a lesbian bar, but this has nothing to do with the restaurant. Nonetheless, if you fear that, given the chance, lesbians will abduct you and enslave you as their dogs' groomer, consider yourself forewarned.

In my two meals, entrées have fared much better than starters. A starter plate of conch fritters resembled overcooked hushpuppies with a few bits of chewy conch here and there. (I couldn't help drawing an immediate comparison to the much missed Indigo Coastal Grill's version.) We ordered two other starters off the menu of sides. Both were yuca – mashed and formed into pancakes the first night and simply fried the second night.

Yuca (or "cassava") is an acquired taste. I did like the pancakes – creamy and slightly crispy – but the fried yuca was cut way too thick and weirdly served with some kind of salad dressing instead of the usual mojo with onions. I regarded it as inedible and the server took it off my bill.

My two entrées were chimichurri flank steak and masitas de puerco – both favorite dishes I've eaten frequently. The flank steak was quite good, cooked medium-rare, but its chimichurri sauce, mercifully served on the side, was weirdly bitter. I like bitter flavors, but this went way beyond palatable. It was served with a bowl of black beans ... and no rice.

The masitas de puerco – "slow-cooked chunks of pork, flash fried" and drenched with mojo – were tasty, although I didn't get a single crispy bite. Still, I'd order it again.

The strangest dish I sampled was ordered by Wayne – tofu in a guava sauce. It wasn't bad, although the side of sweet plantains dominated the tofu, taste- and texture-wise.

I've tried one dessert – perfectly competent bread pudding made with brioche.

The Village Jerk has promise but, by my server's own description, it is still working out kinks in a good bit of the food. But the place has a pleasant vibe and a great staff.



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