Zov’s Keeps Bringing Them Back

<i> Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition</i>

A pint-sized post-modern cafe named Zov’s Bistro may be Tustin’s best restaurant. And Tustin knows it. I’ve had to fight for a table every time I’ve been here.

Perhaps the main reason for its popularity is the delightful personality of owner Zov Karmardian, who greets every one of her customers with warmth and concern. But the mix of French, Italian and Middle Eastern dishes on her small but thoughtful menu must have something to do with it, too. And so must the alluring glass showcase stocked with sumptuous desserts--Key lime pie, chocolate cherry bombe , fruit-studded tarts--that greets you as you walk in.

Zov’s has a great bring-'em-back gimmick, too: free bread to take home. People who dine late in the evening are often given fragrant loaves of bread wrapped in brown paper as they leave. The bread comes from the restaurant’s bakery and catering facility, which one enters on the other side of the complex, Enderle Center, that houses the bistro.

I find Zov’s attractive, but I wouldn’t call it glamorous. The dining area is done in beige, offset by squiggly, earth-toned pillars and a dark floor covered with stone tiles. The food comes out of a shiny open kitchen, where a team of chefs is constantly plying saucepans or putting the finishing touches on plates.


The seating arrangement is even less glamorous. The faux-copper-topped tables are scrunched together carelessly, so you may find yourself rubbing elbows ( literally rubbing elbows) with perfect strangers.

Karmardian is of Armenian descent, and the Near Eastern dishes on her menu are all extraordinarily good.


I simply cannot imagine a meal here, for instance, without the restaurant’s appetizer combination plate ( meze ). For under $5 you get a generous assortment of ripe olives, feta cheese, pickled turnips, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ghannouj , kubba and the “walnut caviar” sometimes known as muhamarra . Wow.

Anyone who dines regularly in health food restaurants has probably had hummus, that tasty spread made from pureed garbanzos flavored with sesame paste, garlic and lemon.

But baba ghannouj , made from pureed roasted eggplant instead of garbanzos, is equally deserving of fame. Zov’s stuffed grape leaves are longer than the sort you would get in a Greek restaurant. There are two to an order--Kermit-colored cylinders with plenty of ground meat in the rice-based filling.

On the meze plate you also get a couple of red-hot kubba , which are more or less meatballs with a cracked-wheat crust. Alongside is a tiny scoop of red stuff. That’s muhamarra , a paste of crushed walnuts bound with pomegranate juice. Smear some on the warm triangles of pita bread that come on the side. The plate also includes a pile of crumbled feta for sprinkling on stuff.

One specialty at Zov’s Bistro is a unique version of “Armenian pizza,” otherwise known as lahmajune and available in any Armenian bakery. Zov’s tops a cracker-thin crust with a savory mixture of lamb, feta cheese and tomato concasse . The feta and tomatoes are Karmardian’s own additions, and they add a whole new dimension to the traditional recipe. When the crust is appropriately crisp (regrettably, a hit-and-miss proposition here), this is one masterful snack.


After you’ve worked through a squeaky-clean salad or one of the homey soups, such as smooth tomato-basil soup or hearty, cumin-spiked chicken-rice, it’s time to take on the more substantial portion of this menu. At lunch, that translates to sandwiches such as grilled lamb with tomatoes and green peppercorn dressing on a homemade baguette, or an oddball sandwich known as the Aram--roast beef, dill and cream cheese rolled up like a jelly roll on the Armenian cracker bread known as lavash.

At night, you’ll probably be drawn to items from the Bistro Specialties section of the menu, where the meats, fish and pastas reside.

The undisputed star is roast rack of lamb, which the menu describes as “served medium rare with traditional pomegranate sauce.”

In the ‘70s this same dish (under the Russian name sedlo ) was the specialty of a now-departed San Francisco restaurant named Bali’s, and the tender rack at Zov’s is the only one I can think of that comes close to that standard.


You can also choose the good grilled veal chop with whole-grain mustard sauce, or excellent swordfish with a white wine, shallot, caper, mushroom and lemon concoction that could be a bit less salty.

Zov’s pastas sort of fall flat, however. The ones I’ve tasted were either overdressed (tortellini in an excessively rich spinach-walnut-basil pesto) or overcooked (the angel hair--tough one to lose, too, with its imaginative combination of checca sauce with feta and pine nuts).


Basically, things have been fine up to this point, but I’m guessing the main drawing card at Zov’s is the desserts. Leading the way is the low-fat Key lime pie, as delicious a version as I’ve tasted, with a smooth filling, firm meringue and a crusty bottom. Others include a terrifically moist chocolate fudge layer cake, a silken creme brulee topped with a slice of kiwi, and a great sour cherry cobbler.


I have never remembered to ask the kitchen to nix the pool of creme anglaise that most of these pastries are served on top of, but maybe you will.

It’s a good enough anglaise , but I think these pastries would stand up even better without any Nouvelle Cuisine conventions.

Come during the day, by the way, and you can beat the Zov’s mobs. Just walk around to the less crowded bakery for espresso and biscotti.

Zov’s Bistro is high-end moderate. Sandwiches are $4.95 to $6.95. Bistro Specialties are $7.97 to $16.95. Desserts are $3 to $6.



* ZOV’S BISTRO * 17440 E. 17th St., Tustin. * (714) 838-8855. * Lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. * American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.