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Photograph by Chris Revell

Kitchen With a View: Zibibbo's open, airy design sets an expansive mood for its Mediterranean cuisine.

Zibibbo Doo Dah

Three cheers for great Mediterranean food that doesn't lose its cool at dessert

By Christina Waters

BEING BLESSED with a dreamy Mediterranean climate does not guarantee that we are blessed with Mediterranean dream dining. Here's a vision: drinks and dinner under the olive trees, the saliva-inciting aroma of spit-roasted game coloring the air and the soothing sounds of a fountain punctuating conversation. Morocco? No--Zibibbo, Palo Alto's Mediterranean spice island named for an obscure Sicilian grape varietal.

Expanses of deep turquoise tile work and endless indoor booths and mezzanine tables detail Zibibbo's miscellaneous dining areas. It's a good thing the restaurant is so roomy--since being named one of Gourmet magazine's 20 best restaurants, competition for tables has taken off.

Julia and I began with Mojitos from the justly popular bar, inhaling our well-made mélange of rum and fresh mint while considering rotisserie pheasant--the special of the evening--and dorade (sea bream), roasted whole and boned at the table, or a spate of succulent pork, quail and other seafood possibilities. The Mediterranean fusion menu quotes styles and seasonings from Tunisia to Provence, Sicily to Sardinia--in other words all the culinarily irresistible parts of the world.

Unsuccessful in our attempt to ignore the slab of olive bread waiting for us at our wrought-iron table, we began with a sizzling platter of Moroccan spiced prawns ($12.95). Like everything at Zibibbo, this starter is generously portioned to share. Armed with extra napkins--the service here is warm, upbeat and highly skilled--we squeezed lemon over the cumin-scented prawns, peeled off the transparent shells and enjoyed their briny flavor. There was not much in the way of Moroccan spices, e.g., no coriander was detectable; in fact, the prawns were rather unspiced in flavor. But good.

From Zibibbo's eclectic wine list, we happily chose glasses of the divine but hard-to-find La Segreta from Sicily's Planeta winery ($8), a supple rosso that went to work romancing our main courses of spit-roasted pheasant ($21.95) and dorade sauced with olives, baby artichokes, onions and tomatoes, all lightly spiked with Pernod ($23.95). Either one of these robust dishes might have served two people, so diners should be aware that they can easily make a meal of a shared entree with added appetizers, such as one of the house sampler mezze plates.

The pheasant, organized into layers of breast and leg meat and crisp with thyme-scented skin, was accompanied by a fresh salad of greens in cider vinaigrette. Fat slices of warm apple and pear bordered the large dish. Each bite paired fruit with game meat, an age-old marriage that still delivers the sensuous goods. The underlying layer of bread moistened by pheasant juices gave the dish yet another personality, that of an Italian panzanella. A side order of elegant asparagus and criminis joined by spring garlic ($5.25) made a fine collaborator throughout.

Boned while we watched, the dorade was succulent and creamy under its blackened skin, every bite of fish enhanced by the olive-intensive vegetables. Much like a reduction of ratatouille, the sauce caressing the outstanding fish was almost the high point of the entire dinner.

Zibibbo is glamorous enough to get by on the slimmest excuse for dessert, but it doesn't. Bypassing warm chocolate cake and rhubarb clafouti, we split a lemon tart with fresh mint and exceptional strawberries ($7.50). Skill and restraint infused this splendid dessert of lemony custard, embraced by an addictive rich pistachio crust. A pool of vibrant strawberry coulis swirled all around the citrus center. "Now that's a tart tart," Julia observed, beating me to the very last trace of crust. Full-figured. satisfying enough for two aggressive diners to share and refreshingly not too sweet, Zibibbo's miraculous lemon tart deserves some sort of honorary Nobel Prize. OK, maybe an Oscar.

Zibibbo has a playfully odd name, but it's worth saying out loud three times. Now you've got it memorized. And if your work schedule requires an early dinner hour some time, Zibibbo offers a nifty "Twilight Menu" from 5:30 to 6:30pm--three memorable courses for $24.95.

Address: 430 Kipling St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.328.6722
Hours: 11:30am-10pm Mon-Thu; 'til 11pm Fri-Sat; 11am-9:30pm Sun
Full bar; courtyard seating

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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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