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O.C. Eats

Mediterranean Magic

At Zov's Bistro, there's nothing too experimental, just tradition with a twist.

October 12, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With 14 years under its belt, Zov's Bistro is a full-fledged Orange County institution.

It started as little more than a cubbyhole in Tustin's Enderle Center, where it still resides. Over the years, various walls have been knocked down and Zov's has expanded to include a bakery, a cafe open all day, and a slightly more formal (and expensive) bistro open for lunch and dinner.

By the first of the year, Zov's will have expanded again, increasing the restaurant's floor space, doubling the size of its pleasant dining patio and adding new touches to the decor, which currently mixes elegance and whimsy.

On the bistro side of the operation, for instance, both the ceiling and the patio canopy are adorned with intertwining greenery and white Christmas lights. Zov's, in other words, is not a place that nurtures pretentiousness.

And there's nothing stodgy about the cuisine, which chef-owner Zov Karamardian describes as "contemporary eastern Mediterranean." The Karamardians are of Armenian descent, but their cuisine circumnavigates the Mediterranean, overlapping and mixing influences in a vibrant way. The food, while not wildly experimental, puts a fresh twist on many traditional recipes.

It has won Zov's a lot of loyal, practically fanatical, followers, among them novelist Dean Koontz, who dedicated "Dark Rivers of the Heart" to Karamardian and her husband, Gary, and has set scenes there in more than one of his books.

*

Among the appetizers are some excellent Middle Eastern standards, all distinguished by the freshness, quality and balance of their ingredients. The Mediterranean plate ($10.95) provides a varied and satisfying sampling. The smoky baba ghannouj--pureed roasted eggplant flavored with tahineh garlic--is among the best I've had, and the hummus is creamy and has just the right amount of garlic.

This platter also comes with a delectable selection of Greek olives and an unusual caraway-flavored string cheese with a sweetish, nutty taste.

Calamari gets an unusual treatment here. The tender rings of squid are flash-fried in olive oil and garlic and served on toasted bread rounds with a tangy tomato-infused white wine sauce.

Also very good is the delightful Middle Eastern spin put on gravlax. Shavings of marinated salmon are doused with olive oil and sprinkled with tart dried sumac berries, capers, red onions and sweet whole-seed dill mustard and served on toasted crostini. The result is a delightfully three-dimensional dish.

My only disappointment in the mezze, or appetizer, department was the New Zealand mussels, steamed with tomatoes, garlic and mint and served over wedges of pita. The idea is good, but the mussels were overdone--chewy and slightly bitter.

Zov's may be a middle-size restaurant on the verge of becoming a largish one, but it still has a mom and pop feel. Gary Karamardian minds the store during the evenings after Zov has gone home, and he's an attentive host. When he overheard us grousing about the carrot soup, a bowl of zesty golden lentil soup spontaneously appeared beside it. (As it happens, our only complaint about the former was that its texture was more puree than soup.)

All of the salads are fresh and crisp. The Greek salad is blessed with a creamy feta, but I also particularly liked the green salad crammed with blue cheese, pears and candied walnuts. Caprese salad, so often dull in Italian restaurants, has a nice zing here. The mozzarella is fresh and melts in your mouth, the vinaigrette is tasty and there's a little mound of olive puree (tapenade) to add a high note.

The only real area of inconsistency at Zov's is the handling of seafood. On my first visit, we ordered prawns, mussels and clams served on linguine in a garlicky tomato sauce. It was near closing time, so the dish may have suffered accordingly, but both the pasta and the seafood--like the aforementioned mussels--were overcooked.

I was also disappointed with the grilled swordfish piccata. At $18.50, it was a small, thin, dried-out slab of fish, and the mushrooms crowded out both the taste of the fish and its white wine sauce.

However, the moist and flaky Moroccan salmon--treated to a cumin-based spice rub, pan-seared and served alongside a lovely large-grained, saffron couscous--was a real delight. It's one of the best things on the menu.

Another house specialty is the rack of lamb. It came done rare, as ordered, in a pomegranate sauce, as advertised. Personally, I'm not crazy about pomegranate in any form--it's too aggressive for my palate--but my dinner companions found this dish quite enticing.

I was more partial to the pork prime rib. It's rotisserie-roasted in a sour cherry glaze, resulting in a crunchy surface that gives way to a soft, juicy interior.

Also good is the lamb shishlik, a tender kebab of lamb loin served with pungent eggplant-garbanzo stew.

The desserts at Zov's seem disproportionately rich for this relatively light cuisine. At $7.50 they might seem overpriced, but most would easily serve two. Zov's chocolate obsession, a disc of mousse resting atop a chocolate hazelnut crust, is rich beyond words. There's also a nice creme bru^lee, but my favorite was the tangy lemon tart.

Dinner appetizers $6.95-$10.95. Entrees $11.50-$20.95. Beer and wine.

BE THERE

Zov's Bistro, 17440 E. 17th St., Tustin. (714) 838-8855. Cafe open 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Bistro open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; for dinner 5-9 p.m Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sundays.

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