Located in a vintage space in downtown's Warehouse District, Zdara offers a tempting blend of well-prepared Mediterranean fare and a hip attitude befitting its West Ninth Street address. A lengthy bar commands much of the open, loft-like room, with exposed brick, slender support columns, and double-height ceilings completing the blueprint.
Friday-night belly dancers provide entertainment — but don't be misled: Zdara puts food first, sidestepping the sorts of problems that make some, more clubby, Warehouse District locales a dicey choice for dining.
For starters, Zdara is physically comfortable. Lighting is complimentary, (something that cannot be said for the laser light shows found at some other Warehouse District venues), and while the surroundings can get loud, the sound level is not ear splitting. Most important: There is quality and value to be found on the food menu — if you know where to look.
Zdara's generous bread basket consists of white and wheat pitas served with a trio of dipping sauces. Within moments of taking a seat in a plush, semi-private booth we're dunking warm pita into cucumber, sesame, and vinegar-based dips. Both in concept and execution, the popcorn falafel appetizer is brilliant. The scaled-down version of the fried chickpea snack, served with a zesty tahini and lemon dip, is every bit as tasty as the standard model, but twice as much fun to eat.
Zdara's take on the Turkish feta-and-mint-stuffed borek swaps the customary phyllo shell for softer empañada-style dough. Though we prefer the crispy version, this one still packs a flavorful punch. The kitchen doesn't skimp on the shrimp — both in size and quantity — in the saganaki, which features big, buttery shrimp in a spicy garlic sauce. Not sure though why they call it "saganaki," a term typically reserved for grilled Greek cheese.
Groups of two or more should consider ordering the appetizer sampler, an elegant spread of five different starters, plus dips and bread. Included in the sampler: hummus, falafel, kibbie, tabouli, and the cheese borek. Fans of the refreshing Arabic salad fattoush will adore the version prepared here. A beautiful toss of crisp romaine, fresh veggies, crunchy pita chips, and citrusy vinaigrette, the dish easily hits its mark.
Also among the apps, you'll find standards like fried calamari, jumbo crab cakes, and the roasted eggplant dip, babaghanoush.
It's in the entrée department that Zdara becomes less reliable. Grilled items like kebabs and chops tend to fare better than fish and side dishes. Though our server failed to ask how we preferred our beef kebabs, the supple chunks of skewered tenderloin arrived precisely medium rare. Same for the nicely seasoned grilled lamb chops, which come four to a plate. Unfortunately, that plate also contained barely warm pureed potatoes with goat cheese and rosemary, and still-raw asparagus spears.
In the Monaco chicken — one of the menu's true gems — golden-brown pieces of white and dark meat are stuffed with spinach, feta, and pine nuts, and topped with a charred tomato sauce.
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be heaped upon the halibut: a large flank of overcooked fish that was too heavily crusted with an overpowering blend of red-pepper paste, tahini, walnuts, garlic, and a Middle Eastern spice mixture.
While you would expect any Warehouse District hub to excel at the cocktail arts, that wasn't our experience at Zdara. Our round of mojitos ($7) was plagued by heaps of black mint — neither attractive nor delicious — that needed to be fished out. Moderately priced wine by the glass seemed the more reliable bet.
We never did make it to one of the Friday-night belly dancing shows, a spirited affair that doubtless leaves chomping diners feeling lazy by comparison. But that's okay: As serious diners will tell you, good food, a friendly vibe, and handsome surroundings are about all the entertainment that most of us crave.