Zohara, the latest restaurant from DORO Restaurant Group, opens May 10, 2017, at 991 Farmington Ave. in West Hartford Center.
By Ronni Newton
The Mediterranean vibe begins before even opening the wooden door of Zohara, where ample light spills from windows that can be opened to the sidewalk and the brick exterior of what was formerly a paper and luggage store has been softened with a whitewash.
Inside, patrons are greeted by a beautiful patterned tile floor, rich and warm wood accents including exposed beams, and walls covered with custom-painted murals.
Behind a blue-and-white-tiled half wall is an open kitchen, warm hammered copper pots hanging from gleaming stainless steel, meat visibly roasting on a spit, the aroma adding to the warmth. Wire baskets overflow with cauliflower, artichokes, eggplant, and other ingredients that will likely end up on your plate.
Along one side of the kitchen is a long bar, where diners can watch as chefs prepare the food.
Wooden tables are long, surrounded by seats backed with blue and tan striped cushions, inviting large parties to engage in community dining – which according to owner Dorjan Puka is exactly what the restaurant wants to encourage.
It’s a complete transformation of the space that was formerly home to Plimpton’s, a stationery, office supply, and luggage store.
Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen, with a focus on the eastern Mediterranean, is the newest member of DORO Restaurant Group, which already includes the highly successful Treva (Italian) and Àvert Brasserie (French) restaurants in West Hartford Center as well as Artisanal Burger Company in Manchester.
Puka said that the menu is meant to be shared, for people to try a little bit of everything.
When asked what he recommends, what is most unique about the menu, Puka said there are many dishes that people will want to try.
“There’s the whole roasted cauliflower, the creamy hummus, the kabobs. My favorite is the chicken livers, served with horseradish and beets,” Puka said. The cauliflower is topped with pine nuts, pomegranate, tahini, and herbs. The hummus is available in several varieties, including lamb ragu and a “schlug hummus” with “hand foraged and locally farmed toppings.”
The menu says the “food is based on the ingredients in the health-conscious Mediterranean diet,” with an emphasis on vegetables, grains, fish, and lean meats. Offerings are based on the cuisine of Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, and Greece.
The emphasis is on mezze, or “salutim” – small plates meant for sharing.
The salutim encompass a wide array of choices like roasted eggplant puree, Moroccan carrots, and crispy chickpeas, with each item ranging from $4 to $9 or available in groups of four or eight.
Mezze – more substantial items still made for sharing – includes dishes like the roasted cauliflower, globe artichoke with yogurt dipping sauce, Moroccan cigars, falafel, and Laffa flatbread topped with farm fresh ingredients.
There are also soups (like a Harira soup with lentils, chick peas, and cilantro) and salads (like the Albanian salad of cucumber, tomato, pepper, feta, and onion) as well as an ancient grain salad.
The menu also includes entrees like braised lamb shank, chicken tagine, Moroccan seafood stew, and Israeli couscous with turmeric, artichoke, and oyster mushrooms. Prices range from $16-$24.
The full bar offers a board selection of wines and beers, including some from the eastern Mediterranean, but there’s a strong emphasis on craft cocktails that also echo many of the menu ingredients.
“We pride ourselves on fresh-squeezed juices,” said bar manager DJ Barron as he created a “24 Carrot” by blending cardamom-infused vodka and carrot juice with a bit of honey and lemon. There is also a cocktail using beet juice as the base, as well as a selection of fruit-based drinks.
“We are interested in not only a cuisine but in bringing a culture to the area built around eating together,” said DORO Restaurant Group COO Scott Miller.
Puka and his wife, Mira, together with Miller, and Executive Chef Scott Damboise, traveled to Israel recently for inspiration and to help develop the unique menu.
Mira Puka said everything about the restaurant is unique. “The design, the food, the cocktails. It’s like no other restaurant we have,” she said.
“We want people to come in, relax,” Miller said. Zohara literally means “of light or splendor,” but Miller said they also interpret the meaning as to “lighten up.”
“Leave your phone in your pocket,” said Miller, and enjoy the food and the company.
Zohara has seating for 140 inside the restaurant, and when the patio opens on May 20 it will be able to accommodate another 60.
“We are very excited,” said Dorjan Puka. He and his Mira, both natives of Albania, moved to the United States 18 years ago. He’s overwhelmed with the success he has been able to achieve, now opening his fourth restaurant.
Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen, located at 991 Farmington Ave. in West Hartford Center, officially opens to the public for dinner at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 10. Lunch will be available starting at 11 a.m. beginning the week of May 15, Puka said.
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