When Phil the Fire closed its doors some years back, Shaker Square lost not only its best and only source for killer chicken and waffles — it surrendered a slice of its African-American identity as well.
Stepping in to more-than-capably fill those shoes is Zanzibar, an upscale soul-fusion spot located next-door to Shaker Cinemas. Taking over space previously occupied by Darna Moroccan Cuisine, Zanzibar is already doing better business than its predecessor. During two recent weeknight visits, both the bar and dining room percolated with infectious energy. Word is that weekends are even busier.
Owner Akin Affrica, a third-generation restaurateur whose family runs Angie's Soul Café, has not only spiffed up the notion of a soul food restaurant; he has spiffed up the soul food itself. The restaurant's tagline — "Sexy, Sophisticated, Soulful" — applies equally to the food and setting, elevating what typically is an uber-casual affair into something approaching fine dining.
When the roomy space was converted from Luchita's to Darna, it received a major upgrade. This time around, it needed very little to take it to the next level. Dark-wood tabletops have replaced the former saffron-colored linens. Plush leather furniture makes sitting a breeze. But in the midst of one of the worst Cleveland winters, God only knows why the gas fireplace isn't aglow.
For a perfect example of what soul fusion is all about, consider the popular soul rolls ($8.85). From the outside, these crunchy, deep-fried starters resemble Chinese egg rolls. Inside, however, boneless chicken, black beans, and roasted corn deliver a fresh new twist; spicy dipping sauce kicks them up anew. Another variation on a classic is the collards and artichoke dip ($6.95), which swaps the customary spinach for southern greens. Every bit as cheesy as the original, the thick dip comes with toasted focaccia for scooping.
Compared to many of Zanzibar's menu items, which tend to be on the heavy side, the shrimp and grits ($7.95) appetizer feels light. Smallish shrimp in a flavorful Creole sauce are ladled over soft, creamy polenta. Cilantro and crisp veggies keep the dish bright.
In a menu section titled Small Bites, the kitchen shrinks down a handful of popular sandwiches to two-bite size. We gobbled up the mini catfish Po' Boys ($8.95), a trio of sliders featuring freshly fried fish, crunchy cole slaw, and ripe tomato. Other sammies are built around jerk chicken, fried shrimp, and salmon.
Angie's puts out top-notch fried chicken, and Zanzibar does too. Fried to order, the chicken can be enjoyed glazed in honey ($11.95), smothered in gravy ($9.95), or our personal favorite, garnishing fluffy Belgian waffles ($7.95). The combination of crunchy fried chicken, soft waffles, sweet syrup, and spicy hot sauce is a comfort food you won't soon forget. So, too, is the chicken and biscuits, which features fried chicken served atop split biscuits and smothered in gravy and onions.
Not everything was a total success. Salmon croquettes ($10.95) tasted no better or worse than run-of-the-mill tuna cakes made with excess breading. And side dishes — the ever-important supporting cast to soul food — never seemed to rise to their role. The mac and cheese is a tad too bland, the Cajun corn and okra tasted odd, and the grits are ruined by pools of margarine instead of real butter. We have zero complaints, however, about the savory wild rice and diminutive corn muffins.
Zanzibar has a full bar, but watch out for the wines by the glass. Some, like the Red Diamond and Seven Sisters, are clearly no bargains. Many folks simply opt for the ice-cold lemonade or Kool-Aid, which is served up in massive 32-ounce Mason jars ($2.95).
We have yet to tackle the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch. But if it's anything like the regular menu, it is likely filling enough to get a person through till Monday.