The sign is up, the health and liquor inspections have passed and Zara Mediterranean Cuisine is ready to open in downtown Tacoma next Friday, Aug. 19, on Pacific Avenue in the space that Sea Grill vacated in March 2009.
The Mediterranean restaurant will serve what sounds to be straightforward interpretations of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. What I found most interesting is that the restaurants will serve shawarma. What's that? A rotating tower of meat slowly cooked on a vertical grill. Shawarma is the Arabic name for the vertically roasted meat dish. Greeks call it gyros; in Turkey, it’s doner kebab. I call it delicious. The meat is shaved, sliced and served on a platter with vegetables and spreads, or as a sandwich.
The basic recipe of shawarma is strips of meat pressed onto a long skewer that is then placed on a rotisserie grill that slowly rotates and cooks the meat vertically. The seasonings, recipes and methods vary by region in the Mediterranean as do the meats used: lamb, beef, chicken or a variation of all.
Don’t think of this as pressed, ground meat – the stuff served at fast casual gyros restaurants around here. Shawarma (also spelled shawerma or shawurma) at Zara will be made from whole strips of meat, hand cut, piled onto the shawarma machine, and seasoned in house. Zara chefs will slice hunks of the meat and serve it with shrak, an unleavened flat bread similar to a tortilla. Want pita instead? They'll have it.
Meat is what matters at Zara – and not just on the menu; it’s intended to be a spectator sport in the dining room. A shawarma station will hold 20-60 pounds of meat. Whole stuffed lamb also will be sliced at the on-view carving station.
Zara also plans to serve a spectrum of Mediterranean dishes (see the menu rundown below). The term “Mediterranean” can seem so nebulous, I'm irritated by the term as a restaurant description because it can translate into a wide range of eating. So many countries touch the Mediterranean Sea. Italy? Greece? France? Morocco? What exactly is Mediterranean cuisine?
When I asked the operators of Zara to define their version of “Mediterranean,” they told me “Eastern Mediterranean.” What do they consider that to be? The food of Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. A few accents of Jordan, too.
I had a lengthy phone conversation with general manager Chip Venzone, who local restaurant watchers will recognize as the former general manager of Pacific Grill across the street, and James Barbara, a chef with longtime ties to Tacoma who formerly cooked at Altezzo in the Sheraton.
Barbara, who was born into a family of bakers on the East Coast, has been working in restaurants since he was 12 and learned to cook in a kitchen owned by two brothers from Naples. His interest in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine grew while working at an Arabic nightclub and restaurant in Seattle.
Here’s what Barbara and Venzone told me about Zara: The flow of the open dining room that Sea Grill designed is intact, and the only structural changes that have been made to the restaurant are the addition of carving stations.
The seating and color scheme has morphed from the seafoam color scheme of Sea Grill to a palate of blue and white, accented with gold. Venzone described a Grecian-style ceiling mural in the bar.
Curious about the name? Zara is an Arabic word that means “to visit.” The restaurant will have seating for 140, with room for about 40 more in the bar and a private room for as many as 50 diners.
The restaurant is owned by Galazios Inc., and will be the company’s first restaurant. The company announced the opening of Zara in February in the space in the Umpqua Bank building that has been vacant since Sea Grill, owned by Seattle’s Mackay Restaurant Group, which owns El Gaucho, closed.
Curious about the menu? Take a look at the dishes below. Prices are expected to be $9-$11 at lunch, with entrees from the high teens up to the low $20 range for dinner. Feasts feeding four or five or more diners will be available for around $100:
Dolmades: Seasoned rice and meat-filled grape leaves.
Shrak: A thin, unleavened bread similar to a tortilla, meant to be eaten with shawarma.
Shawarma: Beef and lamb combination; chicken and beef and lamb cooked separately, too.
Kibbeh: An egg-shaped appetizer of a bulgar wheat dough shell stuffed with spiced beef and lamb.
Moussaka: A layered eggplant, lamb and beef dish.
Spanakopita: Savory turnovers stuffed with spinach and cheese.
Seafood: Pan-roasted flounder served with capers, dill, mint and garlic; poached halibut served with julienned vegetables; shrimp scampi served on kebabs.
Sauces/spreads: Roasted eggplant dip baba ghanoush; hummus dip made from garbanzo beans, ground sesame, garlic and lemon; and an enriched yogurt dip made with laban yogurt, mint and black olives.Zara Mediterranean CuisineWhere: 1498 Pacific Ave., TacomaHours: Open daily for lunch, happy hour, dinnerPhone: 253-572-1222 or www.zaracuisine.com (under construction)Opening: Aug. 19Reservations: Being taken now at Open table, the number above or email@example.com.