Review: Ziba's Wine Bar

Grant Park's Mediterranean newcomer

In cities all over the world, in ferreted-out spaces down alleyways one might easily miss, people open strange little restaurants so specific to their owners and circumstances that they're hard to define. These are places born of dreams — entrepreneurial dreams, economic dreams, dreams of bringing a taste of something (home, mom, that magical country once visited) to a city that's lacking. These aren't restaurants that cater to a certain crowd or ethnicity — they are restaurants that hope to create an audience based on their personality alone. Because of this they are particularly fragile.

So it was with Solstice Café, located on a strange, almost awkward stretch of Boulevard near Grant Park. Crammed with art and acting as a coffee/breakfast/lunch/bar/dinner spot, Solstice was the product of its neighborhood but never quite felt integral. Its main strength was breakfast; its main weakness dinner. Toward the end, I heard rumors from industry informants of drama among owners and employees. Solstice closed in January.

And now, in the same space comes Ziba's Wine Bar, at once a stranger and more intriguing restaurant than Solstice. Owned by former Solstice manager Marcie Meirndorf, Ziba's has a much different feel than its jumbled predecessor. The two deep, window-fronted rooms have been stripped of Solstice's oil paintings, and the bar moved to the back. On one wall, the plaster has been chipped away to reveal the bricks beneath — look twice and you'll realize the hole is in the shape of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ziba's construct is a Mediterranean wine bar, but both of these terms are used loosely: It's Mediterranean in the sense that there are hookahs, and most of the food is inspired by Greece, Spain and the Middle East. And it's a wine bar in the sense that there's wine — perhaps the craziest, most esoteric list in the city. But more on that later.

The chef is Landon Thompson, who was named chef at Top Flr for about three days last spring before being replaced — a piece of turmoil I was never able to get to the bottom of. He's also worked at Dogwood, One Midtown Kitchen and Holeman & Finch. But the Top Flr connection makes sense: Thompson's sensibilities are similar to that restaurant's flavor-driven international leanings.

In Ziba's Mediterranean context, that means sweet Medjool dates stuffed with Manchego cheese, celery and smoked paprika — the crunch of celery and funk of cheese acting as foil and friend to the sticky sweet of the dates.

Clams in a salty white wine sauce are punctuated with merguez sausage and feta, marrying spice with creamy tang and brothy savor. Tender, lemony grilled calamari with olive tapenade has earthy balance thanks to the addition of charred artichoke hearts. And speaking of char, the steak "chartare" brings just the right hint of the grill to classic steak tartare.

Small plates are Thompson's creative strength. Entrées are more standard — and more troubled. Steak over smashed potatoes with blue cheese butter was well-seasoned but outdated and out of place on this menu. The braised baby octopus with clams over rice had plenty of seafood funk — perhaps a bit too much. Olive-oil-braised eggplant sounded like a dream for an eggplant enthusiast (me), but turned out to be a whole lot of mush, with no depth of flavor or caramelized edges to rescue the dish.

Wine at Ziba's is positively schizophrenic, in a kind of an endearing yet infuriating way. The small by-the-glass list is a harbinger of what's to come on the bottle list: Standard supermarket juice sits alongside bizarre, obscure wines from Romania and Hungary. Bottles are organized randomly, apart from the white/red distinction — price, country and characteristic are all jumbled together. All this would be fine if the staff were able to help navigate. But for the pretty, tattooed, minimally clothed waitresses, this seems like their first encounter with a bottle opener, let alone a white Priorat or Greek Makedonikos. As someone devoted to out-of-the-ordinary wines, I appreciate the effort, if not the execution.

And as someone with a special affection for neighborhood restaurants, Ziba's as a whole is baffling. The space is a little too dark and weird, the staff a little too naïve, and the food better than expected. It's an accidental-feeling restaurant, born of personality and happenstance. As such, it seems particularly fragile. I wish there were more places like it.

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