These days, it’s hard to dine out without meeting an avocado. When faced with Avogannush, a literal mash-up of baba ghanoush and avocado at Zeugma Mediterranean Grill in Montclair, I rolled my eyes. Hasn’t baba ghanoush done just fine on its own?
Sure, but at Zeugma, creamy avocado mellows eggplant’s tang. Turns out, it’s what baba ghanoush needed all along. Credit executive chef Can (pronounced John) Alp, who came to the United States in 2014 from Turkey, where he had trained as a chef (he also went to culinary school in France) and worked at Istanbul’s popular Müzedechanga restaurant.
Zeugma’s menu leans Mediterranean, with a few Turkish specialties. Most interesting is manti, delicate dumplings stuffed with minced shiitakes instead of traditional ground beef. They’re served in a tart, pale-pink sauce made with labneh, white wine and paprika oil. Alp also offers beef shish kebab and keftah made with a blend of lamb and beef. They were well-executed, if uninspired, renditions.
Take a cue from the Avogannush: things perk up when Alp, who is just 28, starts playing with his food. Beet falafel, dark red and big as clown noses, were crunchy and delicately flavored with cumin. Less successful was pumpkin muhammara, a take on the traditional red-pepper and walnut dip. Even sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and crumbled feta, it lacked flavor. Borek, cigar-shaped phyllos filled with spinach and feta, were slimy inside and lacked the necessary crisp exterior. We nudged those aside in favor of a delicate dish of sautéed calamari ringed with miso aioli, and a large, tender octopus tentacle brushed with an inky-purple olive sauce on fall vegetables.
Alp’s devotion to vegetables showed in every course, including the sautéed bounty of carrots, brussels sprouts, kale and potatoes cuddling up to many main dishes. Salads were generous, with the fig and burrata a standout, thanks to a dressing made with preserved lemons. The lemon offered an unexpected tart-bitter contrast to the creamy cheese (and helped us overlook the unripe figs).
Main dishes were large. A simple grilled sea bass was delicate and perfectly cooked. Give Alp points for serving salmon with an offbeat kale-garlic purée, but it showed little evidence of garlic.
Desserts amounted to a few misses and one giant hit. Baklava was dry and uninteresting, ginger rice pudding gloppy and lacking ginger buzz. Perhaps most baffling was the chocolate soufflé, which proved to be no soufflé, but a prosaic, if well-executed, molten chocolate cake.
Luckily, one spoonful of the Z-Chef Special Dessert made me forgive its goofy name. Alp said it was inspired by his love of French macarons. Labneh-based pastry cream with fresh strawberries was sandwiched between two large meringues (the macaron link) and served in a pool of raspberry purée. The tang of the labneh made a great foil for the sweetness of the meringue, which was torched into toasty, marshmallow-like gooeyness.
Under the state’s 2012 liquor-license revision, BYOs can sell the wine of either a single out-of-state winery or, as before, a single Jersey winery. (Wine can be sold only by the bottle or half bottle.) Zeugma sells several wines from California’s Domenico Winery. A Domenico spokesman described them as “decent wines at a decent price.”
Alp’s drive to invent can result in overkill, such as sprinkling pistachio pesto on an otherwise fine burger, or a mountain of dull beet and zucchini noodles on an already bland filet mignon. Yet with his strong work ethic, this talented young chef bears watching.
Price Details:Appetizers, $7-$24; entrées, $18-$31; desserts, $7-$11
Ambience:Spacious, but a riot of clashing colors, lights and artwork makes for an unsettling vibe
Service:Helpful, if unpolished
Wine list:BYO, and wines from a California winery