Zov's Cafe Bakery & Bar is in one of those neighborhood centers that looks like every other neighborhood center you've ever seen. You know the kind: the sprawling parking lot, the transplanted palm trees, the name-brand "anchor" supermarket, and of course, the cluster of eateries, huddled together and stuccoed in dull browns and pastels.
This formula seems to be gospel for developers. What results is a weird kind of mass-produced uniformity and a stark Orwellian sameness, where every new community in California looks like the next. To be standing in one, here in Newport Coast, felt like being in a twisted episode of The Twilight Zone and had me asking, "Haven't I been here before?" (Cue the music.)
The truth was, I hadn't. This was my first time at this particular glorified strip mall and also the first time at this new outlet of Zov's, which was only the second restaurant to be opened by Zov Karamardian—the James Beard Award-winning owner of Zov's Bistro in Tustin.
Although barely a few months old, her new café has already attracted the attention of the locals. I found them inside, barely succeeding in getting their mouths around Zov's overstuffed sandwiches. Surrounding them was a restaurant with a casual, breezy feel, lit with oval-shaped pendant chandeliers and tall picture windows. Near the entrance, a glistening glass display case featured Zov's dessert pastries ready for the picking (more on this later), and throughout the modern space, not a single tablecloth fluttered.
We started with an appetizer of calamari, which our young-but-knowledgeable server described as "not the kind you find at other restaurants." How so? "They're not fried." And indeed, the squid rings didn't have a trace of batter or breading—and were all the better for it. It succeeded as a simple sauté in a rich, white-wine cream sauce with diced tomatoes, riding on toasted rafts of sliced baguette. We needed a spoon to scoop up every drop.
The mezze platter was, by contrast, finger food. I rolled a triangle of pita bread into a cylinder and dragged it through the hummus. Then I tore another piece and used it pick up some muhammara, a chunky, sweet concoction made of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup. The dolmas—grape-leaf wrapped stogies stuffed with sour rice—I ate like egg rolls.
As we moved on to our entrées, I dug into the seared salmon with charmoula sauce. While the dish didn't taste like any salmon dish I've ever had before, it was as traditionally Moroccan as it gets. Charmoula is a marinade specifically designed with fish in mind. Fresh diced tomatoes started the base flavor, rounded out by lemon, paprika, garlic, cumin and cilantro—a funky-tart Middle Eastern version of salsa, it proved a heady accompaniment to the sublimely cooked slab of wild king salmon.
Although it was properly seasoned and expertly grilled, the top sirloin was more prosaic by comparison. Also, judging by the stubborn chewiness of the steak, it could've done with a little more aging. Thankfully, it came with shoestring fries that were heaven-sent: crisp, thin and addictive like all fries on Earth should be but aren't.
The most intriguing entrée was the falafel-crusted whitefish. And it arrived just as advertised: a moist, flaky filet with a thin, golden jacket of that familiar deep-fried, Middle Eastern chickpea delicacy. Most amazing was how it captured the sensation of eating falafel—the characteristically pebbly crunch, the distinctive spicing, and even the tahini sauce was present and accounted for. Rice pilaf and wilted spinach completed a satisfying dish.
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Dessert came quickly, readily plucked from that display case we saw earlier. We chose three that involved chocolate in some form. The first was a chocolate banana tart, a miniature pie shell filled with the fruit, whipped cream and curls of chocolate.
The second was something called Milk Chocolate Bomb, our favorite of the lot. Its dome-shaped coat of ganache hid a dreamy center of chocolate mousse and a nugget of pastry cream. The third was yet another pastry, the Chocolate Box. This cylinder had a sheet of chocolate fondant wrapped around a core of cake. On top of it sat a crowning tuft of chocolate shavings—wholly unnecessary if you're counting calories, but essential for the full effect of its decadence.
As we headed out from the parking lot, past the hills dotted with an incurable outbreak of McMansions, one of my dining companions reminded me that Zov's is opening a third branch in Irvine in the fall. It will be in a new development called Orchard Hills Village. Any guesses on what this neighborhood center will look like?
ZOV'S CAFE BAKERY & BAR, 21123 NEWPORT COAST DR., NEWPORT COAST, (949) 760-ZOVS; WWW.ZOVS.COM. OPEN MON.-THURS., 7 A.M.-9 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 7 A.M.-10 P.M.; SUN., 8 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $50-70, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.