Excellent Fare So Where Are Diners?

DINING OUT

April 19, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

What a shock. A restaurant with a $110 bottle of Dom Perignon on its wine list that doesn't accept credit cards. But once we had surreptitiously pooled our money to make sure we lTC wouldn't have to wash dishes to pay for our meal, we settled back and had an excellent dinner at Zorba's, Greektown's newest Mediterranean eating spot.

I can't remember a bad meal I've had at any of Baltimore's Greek restaurants, but they do tend to run together. What I like about Zorba's is that it offers something a little different. The place is called Zorba's Bar and Grill for a reason: At the end of the narrow little dining room, dominated by a handsome oak bar in front, is a charcoal grill. Slowly revolving over the coals are whole spitted chickens, perhaps, or gently sizzling pork. If you order lamb, it will be grilled while you watch, giving off a tantalizing fragrance.

Of course, if cooking this basic is going to work, you have to start with high-quality meat. Zorba's does, judging from my baby lamb chops ($11.95). The seven small chops were charred crusty but still slightly pink, incredibly tender and perfumed with

oregano. I'd probably never get around to trying anything else if I went there regularly, the lamb chops were so good. But Zorba's also has charcoaled swordfish and a fish of the day (neither of which was available that night), charcoaled steaks, sweetbreads and, most surprising of all, two quail for $7.25.

What a bargain, if you're willing to work for your dinner by picking the little bones. It's easy to overcook quail, but the bits of meat on the tiny, plump birds were succulent and tasty. Two vegetables come with dinners: your choice of the usual green beans stewed with tomatoes to fare-thee-well, limp oven-roasted potatoes or rice with an uninspired tomato sauce. However, the house salad, for an extra $2.50, is somewhat surprisingly made of romaine instead of iceberg lettuce, and the bread is lightly charcoal-grilled -- a nice touch. Here's Greek food with at least a little haute.

With such excellent charcoaled meats at such reasonable prices (the 1-pound steaks with two vegetables are $11.95), I don't understand why Zorba's was so empty the night we were there. It's a pretty little space, with its freshly painted cream-colored walls, blue-and-white-checked tablecloths, candles and fresh pink carnations. Black-and-white stills from the movie "Zorba the Greek" line the walls. But the upstairs dining room wasn't open, and not many of the downstairs tables were filled.

It can't be because Baltimoreans prefer standard Greek fare and so go elsewhere, because Zorba's has plenty of the classic dishes and does them well. Moussaka ($6.25), filling but made with a light hand, is based at Zorba's on eggplant and potatoes. (Usually it's one or the other.) Dolmathes ($5.50) come seven to an order, their smooth egg-lemon sauce a good foil to the sharp tang of the tender grape leaves and zesty rice filling. Spanakopita ($2.75) is plump with well-seasoned spinach and feta cheese; its tender phyllo pastry falls apart at the touch of a fork.

Want something a little more unusual as a first course? Zorba's heaps a plate with chunks of octopus ($4.50) generously doused with olive oil, vinegar and garlic. I thought serving it at room temperature brought out its flavors, but my friend would have preferred it chilled.

Save a little room for Zorba's homemade confections ($1.50) if you have a weakness for sweets. A nutty, deliciously sticky baklava and surprisingly tender flan were both more appealing to me than the custard-and-phyllo galaktoboureko.

This pleasant little restaurant is a nice addition to the Baltimore scene, and I'd hate to see it go under for lack of customers. It's a problem that feeds on itself. People go to this kind of ethnic eating spot for the conviviality and good cheer as well as the food. If your only company is a few men at the bar watching soccer on television, you're not so likely to return.

Zorba's, 4710 Eastern Ave., (410) 276-4485. Open every day for lunch and dinner. No credit cards. No-smoking section: no. Wheelchair access: no.

Next: Mariah's

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