If you are looking for that perfect place for a late-night cup of coffee and dessert or a little wine, a casual supper, and sultry, live jazz, then Zanzibar in the South Main Arts District fits the bill.
Zanzibar's atmosphere is electric with its multicolored walls, funky painted bar, and art gallery. The restaurant seats about 50 comfortably. Street parking is ample, and the trolley stops right in front.
The dinner menu is sorted into three categories: "one" for appetizers, "two" for salads and soups, and "three" for entrées. And there is always a daily special.
In category "one," we sampled all the appetizers offered. The salsa Diablo was a dark, pebbly mashed avocado blended with garlic and chopped tomato and served with crisp corn tortilla chips. The nutty Hass avocados ensure a coarse, thick texture that clings to the chips and a flavor that will leave you wanting more. The Pacific prawn ceviche, served with avocados and capers, includes prawns cooked by the acidity of lime juice. Our favorite "one," without a doubt, was the glazed beef, chicken, and pork skewers covered in a sweet chile/garlic glaze. Vinegared cucumbers sweetened with a little sugar made for the perfect complement. (Just a note: The menu stated that the skewers would be served with rice noodles, but the sticky rice worked just as well and the noodles were not missed.)
Of category "two" we sampled the romaine and radicchio with baby greens, which came dressed with Maytag blue cheese, thinly sliced Granny Smith apples, and white balsamic vinegar. The Zanzibar Caesar was basically a simple half-head of romaine lettuce with Zanzibar's own thick, garlicky Caesar dressing and large shrimp. Very satisfying. But the Caesar paled in comparison to the peanut soup. Served in a brightly colored coffee mug, the thick, amber soup had chunks of potato, chicken, carrot, red pepper, and Northern beans floating in a rich, aromatic peanutty chowder. It smelled wonderful, it tasted better, and the flavor seemed to get richer as I got closer to the bottom of the cup.
Category "three" was where the choices became tough. Zanzibar offers a tempting variety of entrees, from roast Peking duck to vegetarian Red Rose potato and tofu curry. We chose the grilled chicken fettuccini. The chunks of grilled chicken atop traditional noodles, prepared al dente and tossed in a creamy rich white (you can opt for red) sauce with the perfect hint of garlic, were worthy of a fine Italian restaurant. The New Zealand rack of lamb was prepared in a "French" manner, meaning the meat had been cut away from the end of the rib so that part of the bone was exposed. The pieces of tender lamb had been delicately bathed in a honey, rosemary, and balsamic-vinegar glaze and carefully placed over delectable mashed potatoes mixed with garlic and basil. The herbs, vinegar, and honey demonstrated the kitchen's knowledge of the importance of blending flavors.
The roasted-pork empanadas, unfortunately, were not empanadas at all. I expected a traditional Spanish treat of pastry crust filled with savory meat. Zanzibar's version of an empanada is more closely related to a tostada, a crisp tortilla with shredded pork and served with refried pinto beans garnished with guacamole, salsa, and Mexican cabbage slaw. And by the time they were served, the empanadas had gotten cold and were bland and chewy.
Our favorite selection, however, was the Jamaican rib-eye strips -- extremely tender strips of seasoned steak grilled to perfection with caramelized red onions, accompanied by garlic/basil mashed potatoes, and finished with freshly prepared asparagus, zucchini, and squash.
And so it went: "One." "Two." "Three." I had had it. Then I spotted "Four" -- Zanzibar's glass cabinet filled with every cheesecake one could think of and a few other sweets too powerful to pass up. My favorite was the caramel praline cheesecake, a decadent, creamy, rich cheesecake drizzled with caramel and sprinkled with candied pecans. Oh, the calories! One of my companions ordered the key lime cheesecake. Unfortunately, it had a gummy consistency and lacked a tastable luster. The caramel turtle cheesecake was a success. The creamy vanilla cheesecake layered with caramel, chocolate, and pecans was a party for the palate.
Zanzibar is located at 412 South Main Street, 543-9646. Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday-Friday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Live jazz Thursday-Friday. Appetizers and salads range from $5.95 to $8.95, entrées $6 to $22. Zanzibar offers an extensive coffee selection and dessert menu. Wine and beer are also available.