I can't help but compare Zora Grille, the Iranian restaurant that opened late last year in Altamonte Springs, to one I've been patronizing for the better part of a decade – Shiraz Grill on Westwood Boulevard. Shiraz's kebabs, be they koobideh, barg, shish, what have you, are the standard by which I measure other Persian-style kebabs fashioned locally. (When the Orlandoer blog said, "The guy at the Orlando Weekly is full chub over it," he wasn't kidding.) When I'm asked about my favorite restaurants, my response isn't based so much on the painterly technique of the plating, or the verticality of the burger, or how the banquettes' stimulating curves break the internet. It's based on whether I'd return to the restaurant time and again – whether I'd make it a part of my regular rotation. Shiraz happens to be one of my faves, but temptress Zora entices with its proximal lure. While no distance is too great for any true kebabophile, not having to drive to the SeaWorld area (where Shiraz is) has obvious merits.
A complete renovation of the former Uncle Jones Bar-B-Q space is oddly industrial and cavernous, but the unmistakable scents of meats a-sizzling makes the place feel more homey than any high-priced interior designer ever could. The nose knows, so while we waited for our meats to be fired, we snacked on simply grilled button mushrooms ($4) and complimentary hummus with lavash. We didn't know we'd get hummus with our lavash, so if you're considering ordering the hummus starter ($4), don't. Not unless you really love hummus – lemony hummus. Khoresht gheymeh ($11), a stew fashioned from yellow split peas, diced potatoes and Angus chuck, might've been on the thicker side, but limoo amani lent the dish what only dried lime can – a brilliantly bitter finish.
Now, when you're in mid-chew and the server comes by and gives you the "look" – you know, the one that says: Hey, you guys better hurry the hell up because the kebabs are about to come out and you've got a lot of food on this table and I need to start clearing plates because the kebab platters aren't going to fit – you feel compelled to, well, hurry the hell up. So stew, lavash and hummus were duly packed in in preparation for a somewhat deflating arrival – the Zora kebab platter ($24) was one lamb koobideh short of complete. "It's being cooked," said the apologetic server. (So why rush us, only to serve an incomplete dish?) We chewed on a plush kebab of flavorless ribeye while awaiting the "limousine" of ground lamb, which turned out to be not quite as insipid. I will say the rice, with its heady fragrance of saffron, trumps even Shiraz Grill's (and Longwood's Ali Baba, for that matter). A skewer of splendidly succulent boneless chicken thigh ($12), by far the most flavorful of the kebabs we sampled, was made all the better with a side of raw onions – the way all kebabs are enjoyed, from Tehran to Isfahan.
Persian tea for two ($4.50) served with plump, sweet dates is a sufficient ending to your meal. Faloodeh and bastani, two of my favorite Iranian desserts, aren't offered here (advantage Shiraz) though a light, flaky, creamy Napoleon ($4.50), while atypical, is well worth ordering. Soggy baklava ($3.50), not so much.
Live music will soon commence on Fridays at Zora, but I'd rather they commenced tinkering with the spices and seasonings in their meat marinades (while everything was succulent, some of it lacked flavor). Iranian eateries are a relative rarity in Central Florida, and I'd like nothing more than to add Zora Grille to my list of favorites.
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