There’s a seat in Zula that may be the best of the nearly 1,200 or so found within the four-block radius of restaurants and bars surrounding it. The seat itself is unremarkable, a brown leather high-back bar stool. So too the bar it is married to, a thick slab of stained and polished wood. What’s notable is the view it captures through a picture window at the intersection of Race and 14th streets. I occupied this seat one sunny, late spring evening in the company of a newish version of a French 75, a gin, lemon juice, and champagne cocktail that Hemingway and his pals were allegedly fond of losing Paris afternoons to. Zula uses vodka and St. Germain—an elderflower liqueur with notes of lychee and pear—as the spirit base and has redubbed it New French 75. Though I prefer the juniper hit of the classic gin recipe, it’s still a bright, breezy cocktail with a sweet-and-sour-fruit-and-flower profile; one of those girl-frisky drinks that’s deceptively lighter than the punch it packs.
Anyway, the view takes in the northeast corner of the beautifully landscaped Washington Park, majestically framed by Music Hall to its west, as well as The Anchor Restaurant, a fish house specializing in oysters that opened in the latter half of 2012. The sidewalks are crowded with stroller-pushing neighborhood residents, restaurant-goers, and music lovers headed to a reggae festival in the park. The whirr of gears and blur of neon jerseys momentarily fills the landscape as a pack of cyclists pause at the intersection. As a downtown dweller for the past six years, I find this scenery—and the velocity at which it has evolved—a bit surreal. Back then I might be describing this evening as a stiff drink in a dim place. Instead, I’m sitting in a mussel bar with a zazzy cocktail.
Zula is approximately No. 14 in the restaurant development of the neighborhood, and like establishments 1 through 13, it has helped shift the conventional wisdom about what sort of venues could thrive in Over-the-Rhine. The cult of man vs. fire has infiltrated many of them, until it’s become no longer novel for an aura of wood smoke to perfume a room, or for dining space to be organized around a bulbous, ceramic-tiled oven imported from Italy. Eight of Zula’s 150 seats circle a wood-burning oven that is fed an array of rustic, rectangular flatbreads, one of the restaurant’s signature menu items. The intense dry heat produces a crusty exterior flecked with bits of char that yields to the slightly sour tang of a moist, interior crumb produced by a poolish-style starter (a sponge made with baker’s yeast) that Chef and Owner Tsvika Silberberg allows to ferment for at least three days.
Sit at the oven’s counter for a front-row view of cooks hand-stretching the dough to order and accessorizing with various ingredients—thyme roasted tomatoes, basil, and balsamic reduction; seasonal mushrooms and garlic confit; eggplant, roasted peppers, and caramelized onions among them. Chewier than pizza dough, not as thin as the flatbreads of Silberberg’s native Israel, the crust is clearly the star, while the toppings are inconsistent in portion and blend according to who is manning the oven.
One evening, the flatbread listed as “roasted seasonal mushrooms” should have been singular instead of plural—the six thin pieces apparently all sliced from one large mushroom; on another occasion the bread was laden with enough ’shrooms to arouse an accomplished forager. I found this to be true across the menu: crafty cocktails with assorted ingredients that leaned heavier or lighter towards one, then the inverse a week later; cold appetizers and salads that were so grossly over-salted that they were inedible…and then not. I discovered why this was so one evening as I watched a young cook at the cold station toss generous amounts of large salt crystals—which demand the less is more principle—onto various orders. When balanced, most of these dishes were marvelous, particularly the yellowfin tuna crudo, a linear presentation of pretty-in-pink, sushi-grade tuna slicked in citrus and partnered with diced tomato, avocado, and a kick of serrano chile, and the Scottish salmon, citrus-cured, fatty, and elegant with tiny pea tendrils.
If you were plugged in to the local dining scene in the early ’00s, you might remember “Vik” Silberberg as the executive chef of The Celestial, a handsome venue perched atop Mt. Adams that he had come to by way of other fine dining gigs in San Francisco, Atlanta, Italy, and France, as well as his home of Tel Aviv where he owned and operated a successful restaurant and boutique catering business. After departing The Celestial in late 2004, Silberberg eventually landed at Elegant Fare Catering. After leaving Elegant Fare in 2012, he felt ready to tackle his own place again, and set his sights on Over-the-Rhine, where community developer 3CDC was investing in start-up restaurants.
At Zula, an Israeli slang term for a great find or a hidden gem, Silberberg has dialed back the schmancier aspects of his career in favor of the new order of smaller shareable plates and the de rigueur OTR rustica interior. To wit: the mussel bar.
Silberberg’s menu invests heavily in mussels—with nine different sauce preparations. The sauces are mostly good; some better than others (the white wine, garlic, and shallot of the classic French Marinière, as well as the coconut-milky Thai broths are personal favorites), with small rounds of Silberberg’s wonderful handmade bread available to sop up any remaining. But they aren’t preparations that produce the sort of feverish cravings for the next pot nor, for all their prominence, are they the most interesting items on the menu.
Much more so is the beautiful lamb moussaka, the plancha roasted mushrooms with smoked bacon and lime, and the crispy risotto cake with short ribs and tallegio. So too are Silberberg’s and Chef de Cuisine John Harrington’s “big plates”: four daily features—fish, poultry, vegetarian, and the “butcher’s cut”—that often showcase Mediterranean flavors, seasonal ingredients, or a kitchen technique. Saffron foam rather superfluously capped a perfectly seared white sea bass—fatty, flaky, and firm of flesh; and slices of medium rare hanger steak fanned out like a deck of cards alongside a crisp potato “vase” tipped on its side and spilling out a colorful, uniform dice of vegetables.
An adept dessert chef, Silberberg deserves a special mention for ending the meal on a light and not-too-sweet note. I was especially knocked out by the personal-sized raspberry Marsala cake with mascarpone cream, and vanilla bean panna cotta dribbled with mint infused syrup.
The design flaw of many of the eateries popping up in Over-the-Rhine is that shotgun rooms filled with many hard surfaces create a low roar. That makes for an uncomfortable dining experience. Praise to Zula’s architect for taking a large floor plan and breaking it into several dining areas—the bar, oven counter, communal table, front and back rooms—to create intimacy and a merciful soundscape.
Zula isn’t the most innovative restaurant in the area, but there’s enough in the way of inviting dishes, interesting and affordable wines, friendly service, and a rising profile to keep the seats filled. And maybe there’s an argument for the benefit of a room with a view.
Zula, 1400 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 744-9852, zulabistro.com