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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
06.25.08

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Photograph by Pete Shea
eden's eats: Owner Ed Watson shows off Zameen's Greek salad with saffron chicken.

Mezze Mystique

The ancient appeal of Mediterranean flavors gives Zameen a zesty edge.

By Christina Waters


Not since Luxor have I consumed this much hummus, I told Jack (with my mouth full) last Saturday night. We were sampling the food and lively vibes of Zameen, a mecca of Middle Eastern cuisine in Aptos. Huge tiles criss-cross the floor of this aromatic cafe counterpointed by tile mosaics, swirling Greco-Persian pop music and the flare of flames grilling skewers of lamb and chicken.

This is Zameen, a terrific idea in eastern Mediterranean flavors, and a pared-down, no-fuss way to have a delicious dinner, quick. A marriage of luxury--a decent wine and beer listing, custom-cooked grilled items, authentic sauces--and streamlined infrastructure, Zameen lets you visually shop before you buy.

Plates showcasing the evening specials are attractively presented at the front counter, just in front of the wood-fired pizza oven. You can see what looks good before making your choices. Then you order, pay and select a table or booth. Seating is varied, but we opted to join a gregarious group of diners along the far banquettes. Before you can unfurl your napkin, generous pours of wine arrive at your table in those attractive, stem-free glasses. Zameen's system eliminates the lag time that can occur between sitting down and ordering, or between finishing your meal and receiving the check.

Our appetizer was an abundant, hummus-intensive mezze platter ($8.95) filled with enough variations on the theme of garbanzo, olive oil and garlic to fuel an institute of Persian studies. A stack of pita bread triangles held down one side of the platter, next to a sensuous roasted eggplant creation (not a babaganouj, but something a bit more freestyle) and a quartet of fat, tightly rolled dolmas. At the other end of the platter, accented by a few lemon wedges, were three versions of hummus (hummi?), including a basic garlic, tahini, lemon and olive oil variation. A second variation was tinged with red bell peppers and a third, my favorite, came liberally packed with black olives. A little bowl of tzatziki sauce--yogurt, garlic, dill and cucumber--sat in the middle of this splendid mezze orgy. It was great with my Coppola Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($8), and with Jack's St. Pauli Girl N.A. ($3), a good choice for those who like to continue their creative workday far into the evening.

Our entree platter involved two flame-grilled skewers, one of tiny red potatoes, the other of saffron-marinated chicken breast ($12.50). The combination proved delicious, especially drizzled with more of the tzatziki, a dense fig chutney and a frankly addictive mint pesto that tastes fabulous on everything. It even scented my dreams that night, in which I explored lost ruins near a Bedouin stronghold. Two house-made desserts--which proved perfect with tea the next day--included a pistachio-studded lemon cake and a luscious dark chocolate "brownie cake" embedded with dried cranberries ($3 each).

It was all good. And the Zameen format makes dining very approachable. The secret here, in addition to the self-serve condiment table of harissa (not spicy enough for my taste), mint pesto and yogurt dressing, is Zameen's convivial proprietor Ed Watson. A natural host, Watson senses what you need before you even formulate the thought. He not only answers questions about how food is made, what's in this or that dish, he also enjoys involving guests in the whole dining room atmosphere. He can describe the toppings of the Persian flat-bread pizza with such style and intensity that you feel like an idiot for not having grown up eating Persian pizza. It's a pleasure just to be here, and judging from the amount of fun every one of the guests was having with dinner, they shared my opinion.

Opened last August, Zameen's authentic dishes and appealing design represent a skillful collaboration between old country recipes and Central Coast designer/chef Mimi Snowden. The effect is a treat for eyes as well as palate. Zameen greatly enriches the diversity of our culinary landscape--and at these prices, you can't afford not to stop by for one of those lamb burgers, or a feta-and-mint-topped pizza at least once a week. Watch that mint pesto though. It's habit-forming.



ZAMEEN MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE

Address: 7528 Soquel Dr., Aptos

Phone: 831.688.4465

Hours: Open 11am-8pm Tue-Sun

Web Address: www.zameencuisine.com


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