Ziadi’s Mediterranean Cuisine Proves that the Devil is in the Details

The dining area of Ziadi's Mediterranean Cuisine // Photo by Becca Dilley

The dining area of Ziadi’s Mediterranean Cuisine // Photo by Becca Dilley

There is a deep but hard-to-see gulf between scratch-made counter spots and fine-dining restaurants. Two specific examples: World Street Kitchen and Meritage. Both serve delicious food that’s made with care, but a world of slight and sometimes intangible differences sets them apart from each other.

It’s into this chasm that the new Midtown Global Market project, Ziadi’s Mediterranean Cuisine, risks falling. The spot offers some truly tasty flavor, and the decor is charming and cheerful, but it’s attempting to sell a sit-down dining experience with counter-service attention to detail.

Ziadi’s Mediterranean is the next step for Hassan Ziadi, the chef-owner behind the generally excellent Moroccan Flavors counter-service spot at the Midtown Global Market. It occupies a heavily renovated sit-down dining space that used to hold Rabbit Hole. There it serves North African dishes in a light, bright, cushion-and-tile bedecked setting that is a complete change from its previous incarnation as a dark and moody warren. Its web presence is sleek and contemporary, dominated by lush photography—it promises an upscale dining experience.

The food, in a nutshell, is good. More details on that in a moment. But right now, Ziadi’s is an admirable attempt at upscale dining that’s drowning in the details. These details include:

Music. When we dined at Ziadi’s on a Friday night, the dining room was half full and dominated by older diners. The playlist could’ve come from my own New Wave Spotify playlist—The The, The Cars, Thompson Twins, Talking Heads. Great stuff, love to hear it, but how does it relate to dining on North African food in a formal environment? It felt discordant; something like minimalist contemporary electronica or instrumental Moroccan folk music might have set a mood more coherent with the decor and menu.

The antipasti counter. There were elements of the antipasti counter that were delicious—lightly pickled and spiced vegetables brought splashes of tart flavor to the table. But at dinner there were other elements that were confusing, including visibly wilted and discolored lettuce, and naked, cheese-stuffed tortellini that looked and tasted as though they’d come straight from Costco.

Drinks. The drinks menu at Ziadi’s Mediterranean is short, which leaves little room for error. The first cocktail that we tried, the Fes, was muddy—the mix of mid-grade tequila and chartreuse made for an experience that fell short of the scratch-made margarita this drink could’ve been. When I returned to the bar at a later date, to the credit of the restaurant, I was recognized as the guy who didn’t like his Fes, and was comped a well-made Manhattan, crafted to order (not particularly sweet, on the rocks).

Service. Service at Ziadi’s isn’t bad—kudos to the server who remembered my subpar cocktail and seemed sincerely interested in fixing both the drink and my experience—but it’s rough. Our first interaction after being seated was asking for cocktail menus and being told by our waitress, “Oh, the hostess should have gotten those for you,” followed by a five-minute pause before the menus were brought to our table by said hostess. Our cocktail sat untouched and unnoticed until after we’d paid our check, at which point our waitress asked if everything was alright with it. A good instinct, but too late to do much good. Pacing was off—a long delay before ordering and then a quick rush of food. At the restaurant’s price-point and positioning, a Friday night meal should be an hour to 90-minute experience; take out the initial slow service and we would’ve been looking at 30 minutes, with a total check of around $75 for two.

The bread. Our little plate of sliced French bread and butter wouldn’t be out of place at any neighborhood Italian-American spot. But why not serve housemade flatbread or some other different North African specialty? One of our favorite restaurants in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was an Afghan restaurant called Helmand. There, a hulking, bearded chef in a huge, floppy white hat turned out fresh bread by the basketful from a roaring tandoor oven that dominated the dining room. It set the mood, it impressed, it elevated the food—it was a seemingly small detail that made the whole experience feel special.

As you’re reading this, you might be thinking: This writer is a nit-picking bastard. And in a sense, you’re right—none of these problems are cardinal sins. They’re all the sort of minor mistakes that a casual diner is happy to overlook and forgive. The problem is that when the swarm of minor errors becomes thick enough, it colors the entire meal and makes the diner wish she or he had skipped the hour-long sit-down production and just grabbed something quick at Moroccan Flavors or one of the local taquerias for a fraction of the price.

A collection of items from the Antipasta Counter // Photo by Becca Dilley

A plate of items from the Antipasta Counter // Photo by Becca Dilley

With that in mind, some thoughts on the food. Lunch, by nature a more casual meal, makes more sense at Ziadi’s than dinner does. Overall the Antipasti Counter ($10, or $6 as an add-on to any dinner entree) is a novel and, frankly, excellent idea—it’s a chilled collection of about 10 different pickled and/or spiced vegetable choices, including olives, cauliflower, peppers, and the like. Without exception at lunch, we found the antipasti to be bright, tangy, pleasant, and enjoyable—an entertaining way to kickstart the senses at the beginning of the meal. But without any substantial protein options, the value prospect is questionable—a small plate of pickled veg goes a long way and costs very little to produce or serve.

The zest of the antipasti bar doesn’t entirely carry through to the restaurant’s three lunch entrees, which are largely—choose your own adjectives—calming, sedate, mellow, dull, understated, and/or neutral.

The restaurant’s Salmon ($12) dish, served atop a mix of gently stewed seasonal vegetables and a mound of mild mashed potatoes, presents a bland, affable face—ours was nicely cooked and mild, livelier once hit with a couple dashes of salt and a squirt of the accompanying lemon.

The pan-seared chicken // Photo by Becca Dilley

The pan-seared chicken // Photo by Becca Dilley

The pan-seared Chicken ($11) presented the most complex and ultimately most satisfying profile, with a pleasingly firm exterior, a tender interior, and a turmeric-led spice profile that offered depth and interest. The chicken had enough earthy zest to stand out against the background of the potato and other vegetables it was served atop, making for a pleasant contrast.

The Vegetable Risotto ($12) was probably the quietest choice of the bunch, and we regretted not biting the bullet and spicing it up with the optional upgrades of chicken ($4), shrimp ($5), or salmon ($5). At its best, bits of parmesan cheese provided salt and richness, but the whole thing was muted to the point of being forgettable.

Lunch’s $10‒18 price point isn’t outrageous, but at that level a couple of richer options would have been nice; as it stands, the menu’s three entrees are remarkably similar to each other. Borrowing from the dinner menu, a lamb or beef tagine with stewed dried fruit over couscous would pack a flavor wallop, or a wedge or block of bisteeya (a sweet-and-savory, cinnamon-kicked chicken and filo pie) would be nice, bold, earthy choice.

There’s no critiquing the Lemon Tart ($6) we tried for dessert—it was bright, balanced, and buttery, an utterly tasteful (and tasty) conclusion to the meal.

The lemon tart // Photo by Becca Dilley

The lemon tart // Photo by Becca Dilley

At dinner, much to our delight, that beef tagine and a chicken bisteeya special both made appearances. The Beef Tagine Royal ($15) was tender, fully flavored, and nicely accented by strewed fruits including figs, prunes, and apricots. While it did ride atop a bed of roasted potatoes, we would’ve appreciated a more voluminous (and absorbent) bed of couscous. Still, in terms of richness and depth, this is the kind of punchy dish we missed at lunch.

Likewise, the Bisteeya ($18, which included the antipasti), was on point—a crispy, delightful mix of cinnamon sweetness and deeply spiced savory earthiness contained in a filo dough crust. The overall flavor and texture was just right for a winter’s evening.

Practically speaking, there are two roads that Ziadi’s can hike from this point forward. The restaurant can tighten up its service and start making details like bread, antipasti, and music critical selling points in its upscale dining experience, or it can lean into its counter-service roots and start throwing down like a Parisian couscouserie attached to a bisteeya bakery (maybe even attached to a house-made gyro counter), abandoning sit-down service and becoming almost a mini-Middle Eastern food court with a North African focus. We’d love to see the latter but would also happily dine at the former. Regardless: when it comes to a restaurant’s long-term prospects, the middle of the road isn’t a healthy place to be.

What: Ziadi’s Mediterranean Cuisine
Where: Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., #101, Minneapolis
Phone: 612-345-4136
Hours: Sunday–Monday, CLOSED; Tuesday–Friday, 11am–9pm, Saturday 11am–10pm