IT TOOK A WHILE, BUT EVERYONE’S FAVORITE PAN-MEDITERANEAN HAUNT HAS RETURNED. I recently sat down with owner Salim Nasser and bar manager Zack Taylor over a couple of bites and libations, and I can safely say that the place has retained the same comfortable, low-key feel throughout the process of its classy face-lift. Everything I tried was super on-point and I even got to learn about Ziryab himself, who, if you didn’t already know, was pretty much the coolest dude in the Mediterranean region from 789 to 851 AD.
A real jack of all trades, this guy was a musician, a teacher, a culinary expert, a fashion designer, and a poet—and that’s only scratching the surface. He came from Iraq and traveled pretty much everywhere, although he spent the majority of his time in southern Spain. He revolutionized the Oud (an instrument from waaay back) by adding a fifth string, brought asparagus to Europe and is credited with the introduction of the three-course meal as well as the idea of the use of tablecloths. It’s also said that he pretty much introduced the first fork. And the use of toothpaste. And the idea of the seasonal clothing line. Sheesh. Talk about making the rest of us look bad. He’s like a medieval Jay-Z! Regardless, it’s important to learn a little bit about the place’s namesake because a great deal of care was put into weaving the story of Ziryab himself, as well as the Mediterranean region, into both the cuisine and their brand-spankin’ new cocktail menu.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the very tasty 5th String. Consisting of Bulleit Rye, pineapple gomme, lime, fresh mint and Arak, this punch-packing sourish whiskey cocktail really shows the thought Zach Taylor placed in creating a drink menu representative of Ziryab himself. The name refers to the extra string he added to the Oud. Also, mint was a predominant herb used throughout the Mediterranean. Additionally, the use of Arak, a super-strong (100 proof) Ouzo-like liquor from Lebanon is a further nod to the region. When I asked Zach what the pineapple was all about, he smiled and told me it’s the universal symbol for hospitality. All told, its a really great drink to have at night, or in the sunshine on their newly made-over patio.
Next, I tried the La Relacion, which was just as good and came with an equally informative explanation of its ingredients. A pisco-based cocktail that also includes Amontillado Sherry, Aperol, Campari, cardamom tincture, and a lemon peel, this drink is also pretty boozy but brings with it a slightly bitter, peppery finish. Once again, I was gladly schooled on the significance of its contents (WARNING: this one gets even nerdier). First, the grapes used in many types of Pisco are of Spanish varietals which, in fact, are descendants from the Middle East. Next, the addition of Amontillado Sherry is a direct reference to the Al-Anadalus region of Spain where Ziryab spent a large chunk of his time being awesome. The Aperol is from Italy and furthermore, the whole drink is kind of a riff on a Negroni, which serves as a double shout-out to the boot shaped heavy hitter of the ancient seas. Another great drink with another well-placed narrative behind it. All their cocktails will run you 10 bucks. True, it’s a bit steeper than those five dollar happy hour Manhattans, but if you’re in the market for a fancy drink, it’s well worth the price.
At this point I had worked up an, er, appetite (read: I needed something to soak up my “history lesson”) so I ordered the Monterrey Sardine ($11). It’s prepared in the Moroccan “croustillontes” style over a salad of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado and dry olives. I thought it was fantastic. Nothing like a crispy, marinated fish to help wash down some classy cocktails. If you like sardines (and even if you don’t), this is not to be missed.
I wrapped everything up with an order of the Lamb Meatballs ($9). These things rule. They’re tender, seasoned perfectly and they really fill you up. Served with a harissa tomato sauce and homemade yogurt, they leave you feeling happily sated in a way only a meatball can.
And there you have it. Ziryab has returned after a too-long hiatus but it’s made up for its absence. Granted, since they are currently without a happy hour, it’s going to cost a bit more to sit and take in the world, Mediterranean-Style. However, with the thought and care put into the new menus, I feel the price points make sense when you can afford it. Regardless, the entire place has maintained the welcoming, family-owned vibe they’ve always had and I look forward to treating myself again in the near future.
528 Divisadero St
Open Everyday 5pm-1am
Bar open til’ 2am