Golden nugget

Ziryab
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paulr@sfbg.com

New restaurants, like trees and kings, have a way of rising from the remains of fallen ones: the restaurant is dead, long live the restaurant. This only makes sense. In the typical hermit-crab situation, a kitchen of some kind is already in place, there might also be some serviceable tables and chairs, and the permit jabberwocky will be slightly less daunting. Easier all the way around.

But this is not the only means of passing fortune's baton. Some neighborhoods — SoMa springs immediately to mind — are full of restaurants ensconced in spaces once given over to printing plants, warehouses, and other industrial concerns. I had never considered the possibility that someone might one day open a restaurant in an old hubcap emporium — I did not know there were such emporiums — and then, about a year ago, someone did. The restaurant is called Ziryab (named after a ninth-century Baghdadi who moved to Spain and won renown for his discernment in gastronomic matters), and it is to be found along Divisadero in the lower Haight, in a neighborhood still dotted with auto-body and radiator shops.

Given the building's proletarian past, we might well expect more of a makeover than a fresh coat of paint and new tabletops. We might expect a little pizzazz, a little imagination. And our first glimpse of Ziryab is promising if not quite stunning: a smart golden facade, shining on the gray street front like a nugget in a turbid stream, with the restaurant's name spelled out in striking, Arabic-styled letters. Just under and behind the facade lies a heated forecourt set with tables and forested with gas heaters. Divisadero is a little rough for the alfresco set, even in mild weather, so the semiwalledness of this garden is relieving.

We step inside and find ... well, it's not quite Vegas, but the interior designer clearly has visited that desert Shangri-la. The restaurant's basic layout, narrow and deep, is like that of countless other places; there are a couple of tables set in the windows on either side of the door, while the swelling of the kitchen on the right creates a kind of narrows, as at Zinzino. But the Vegas effect has nothing to do with the floor plan and everything to do with the columns and arches of fake marble blocks, which give a faint sense of grotto and a much stronger sense of being in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. All that's missing is the fake sky of perpetual evening overhead, filled with fake twinkling stars. Also the fancy shops. For some reason I find this kind of plastic fakery charming, perhaps because, like all kitsch, it's knowing, and because it's truly not bad-looking. You would never go so far as to suppose that you'd actually wandered into the sultan's kitchens in the Topkapi Palace, but the thought might cross your mind.

Ziryab's food comports with the faintly whimsical mood. The basic tenor of things is Middle Eastern (or Mediterranean if you prefer, or eastern Mediterranean), and this means such dishes as shawarma, kabob, dolma, hummus, and so forth: onetime exotica now well integrated into local practice. But there are also more involved and unusual dishes of a related provenance, as well as a few that have nothing to do with the Middle East at all.

In this last category I would put the house burger ($9), adding only that it was among the worst hamburgers I've ever eaten, notwithstanding the lovely fries (with their natural curl) and a thimble of Dijon aioli on the side. The patty of meat, though good-size, was cooked beyond well-done to a cinderblock condition, and even this merciless charring couldn't conceal a certain gamy offness. I felt as if I'd wandered into the pages of Kitchen Confidential. "House"? I would lose that.

Apart from this blemish, we found everything else to be good or better.

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