We have a couple of friends who we go out with for dinner once in a while. We usually like to try new restaurants. It was my job to pick the location for our January 2011 get-together. I checked my usual sources, focusing on relatively new restaurants in town, and I found Zahtar. The Google search came up with “Zahtar by David Fhima.” That sounded very promising.
David Fhima is a Twin Cities restaurant impresario. One of his first ventures was Mpls. Café. First it was located in the Calhoun Beach Club. Then it moved downtown to 1110 South Hennepin. When that closed, he opened Fhima’s in downtown St. Paul. We only went there a couple of times. The food was great. But many of the dishes were too spicy for my wife. Somewhere along the line, he opened Louis XIII in the Southdale mall in Edina. That restaurant never got much critical acclaim, and we never ate there. Ditto for LoTo (shorthand for ‘lowertown’ St. Paul) and his current project called Faces Mears Park.
When we arrived for our reservation, 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, there was only one other table of diners in the restaurant. While that wasn’t a good sign, there were some promising aspects. The décor is very appealing – warm lighting and shear hanging fabric dividers that create a feeling of intimacy in the large attractive space. We had looked at the menu online and saw several items that looked promising as well.
Despite the fact that we were only the second group of diners to arrive, there was no hostess to greet us and show is to our table. Just a sign directing us to check in at the bar. OK.
We were shown to our table and given our menus. We decided to order a bottle of wine. I saw a couple of interesting choices. I asked our server about Rioja Vega. OK. That wasn’t much help. We ordered it anyway, and liked it quite well.
Next we ordered a couple of appetizers to split. One was the fried calamari. They were very good, lightly breaded and very tender – not at all rubbery. They were served with a spicy aioli. The other appetizer was a shrimp tostada. The flavors were good, but it was quite difficult to eat. Also, it was seasoned with cilantro, which my wife cannot eat. But so far, so good.
For entrées, we had quite a selection. One of our friends had braised short ribs. They looked wonderful – very tender and falling off the bone. At the server’s suggestion, I had the salmon. I don’t usually order salmon at a restaurant because we have it often at home. Also, it was served with rice, and that didn’t appeal to me very much. But I asked if it could be served with the mashed potatoes instead, and when she said ‘yes’ I decided to get it. I liked it. The salmon was very fresh and flavorful. It was just a little on the dry side; might have been slightly overcooked. Our other friend ordered a sandwich - Croque Monsieur, basically a fancy ham and cheese sandwich. He said it was good. But I noticed he only ate half and didn’t take the leftovers home.
But the real issue came with my wife’s meal. She decided to have the steak frites. When the server asked how she wanted the steak cooked, my wife said she wanted it pink in the middle. That didn’t seem to track with the server. ‘Medium rare?’ she asked. No, pink in the middle, my wife reiterated. ‘Medium well?’ the server asked. No, that would be overdone. Just pink.
When her steak was served, she cut in and it was cooked all through. There wasn’t more than a hint of pink in the middle. Now the dilemma – send it back or eat an overdone steak? She wouldn’t enjoy an overdone steak. But if she sent it back, she worried that we all would be done eating before her replacement steak arrived. We assured her that we’d eat slow, and the server said it would only take five minutes to get a new steak out. It took more than five minutes, but we fulfilled our pledge and were only about half done with our meals when hers arrived. The new steak was medium rare. But my wife ate off the ends and edges and brought the middle section, which was too rare, home with us. She’ll cook it a little more and eat slices of it for lunch.
The manager apparently detected that we were unhappy. He came over and listened sympathetically. He assured us that we would not be charged for the steak.
We did have a dessert – a piece of carrot cake. I liked it a lot.
Thinking back on the meal, I believe the main problem was the service. Our server was unfamiliar with the wines on the menu and there was apparently a problem communicating my wife’s preference for her steak to the kitchen. That was very disappointing. The manager did what he could to accommodate us. That kept us from getting mad, but we were still disappointed.
At the end of the evening, our friends asked if David Fhima was in the house. No, our server explained. He’s no longer affiliated with the restaurant. So for me, the big question is this: Did Zahtar decline after Fhima left? Or did Zahtar and Fhima part ways because it’s a failed concept?