The anticipatory high of visiting a restaurant for the first time crescendoes just before the menu gets handed over. Perusal of that menu is the moment of truth, when the promise of a memorable meal is either accelerated by tantalizing choices or dimmed by a list of ho-hum items.
At Zeba, the moment of truth is also a puzzling one. A headline marching across the top of the ecru photocopy reads: 'The only Persian cuisine.' The only Persian cuisine in Portland? The only Persian cuisine worth your time? (No, and no.) Alongside this mysterious statement is the restaurant's name with the tag line 'A place of choice É'
The best advice is to choose wisely.
Zeba opened late last summer in a storefront that has been considerably gussied up since its days as a deli. Unless you regularly travel between downtown and Goose Hollow, you might not be aware of the cheerful West End restaurant. Located near Interstate 405, Zeba occupies a stretch of Southwest Salmon Street that is particularly deserted after dark, which makes it a smart bet if you're trying to squeeze in dinner before a movie or performance a few blocks east.
Since opening, Zeba has narrowed its menu from a mŽlange that included pastas and burgers to a sensible, mostly Middle Eastern mix in which Persian-specific entrees are the stars. Play it safe at Zeba, sticking to the mezza plate and kebabs, and you'll be disappointed. The less familiar dishes reward.
The menu description doesn't say so, but fesenjun contains chunks of duck as well as sautŽed chicken, bringing greater richness to this silky stew. Similar to a velvety Indian almond sauce, fesenjun is an addictive blend of ground walnut, pomegranate, onion, herbs and lemon juice. It's piquant but smooth, and if it suits your tastes, this hard-to-find dish will be reason enough to return to Zeba. Like all the entrees, it's served with a generous heap of fluffy basmati rice.
Tart barberry beans (more sour but less chewy than dried cranberries) resemble little garnets and add sparkle to a simple roasted chicken entree. Half a Cornish game hen makes for a smallish portion, but it's good and tender, the requisite barberry beans enlivening rice and run-of-the-mill sautŽed vegetables. Those scared off by dark meat will be happy to see a chicken breast skewer on the menu, which gets nice flavor from saffron, onion and olive oil but is nonetheless dry. The tough lamb kebab could stand to spend less time in Zeba's prided wood-fired oven.
Zeba's pizza with prosciutto, pineapple and chvre cheese is a classy update on Hawaiian pizza and big enough to serve two, especially after munching on maplewood-imbued flatbread. The bread is terrific fresh from the oven, but you may be given cool, stale stuff on weeknights when it's possible that only one or two tables are active. If that's the case, try the flatbread served pizza style with pungent Cambozola cheese, tomato, basil and hunks of sweet, roasted garlic.
Appetizers generally are fluky here. Avoid, at all costs, the mixed appetizer plate. The hummus is mealy, grilled olives flaccid, stuffed grape leaves dry and cucumbers past their prime. Only the baba ghanouj holds any appeal. Cucumber raita, on the other hand, is fragrant with fresh mint.
The space is handsome and warmly lit, accented by a high ceiling, snazzy tiled floor and plush drapes Ñ pretty luxe for an inexpensive Middle Eastern restaurant. Zeba's rather grand setting is a bit at odds with the fairly standard meals, perhaps making dinner taste better than it is.
While this earnest newcomer isn't the only, or best, Persian restaurant in Portland, it deserves kudos for bringing fresh spirit and nice prices to the West End.