Ozra brings Mediterranean flavors, hope to Little Italy

A lot of people have tolled the death knell for Little Italy over the years. If the neighborhood had turned its lights off and took its pasta pots home every time it was counted out, it would have been sleeping with the fishes many years ago.

But while Little Italy endures, it is in a state of flux. Restaurants like Della Notte, Velleggia's, and Boccaccio have closed, causing new whispers about the downfall of the once-mighty mecca for romantic dinners. But like Don Corleone realizing that his family has to change with the times, Little Italy has slowly been turning into a place for more than just red sauce and clams (that's the end of The Godfather references, I promise). Ozra (806 Stiles St., [410] 528-2710, ozra.us) might be one of the new restaurants to help kickstart a resurgence in Little Italy.

Nestled right off of President Street, Ozra ("oz" pronounced like Ozzy) is a stylish and simple modern restaurant that serves traditional Persian and Mediterranean fare. After two years of renovations, Ozra's is a minimalist yet well-designed space. It is monochromatic throughout, save the large drapes spilling down the walls. A charming upstairs dining area allows patrons to look over into the main dining room, and there are plans to open up an outside patio in the future. We ate in the main dining room, which has illuminated shelves stocked with clear glass containers full of flowers and water that are lit from below, creating a striking and dramatic presentation. Ozra sets a great mood for a special dinner, but what we got was an uneven but solid meal.

A plate of gratis hummus was laid out for us as we perused the menu. It was lemony and light, with a kick of spice from a few shakes of hot sauce on the top. The little bit of heat was extinguished with a sip of 961 Beer's Lebanese Pale Ale ($6.50). Brewed with spices such as za'atar, sumac, mint, sage, anise, and chamomile, this beer wonderfully accented the food we had throughout the night.

As good as the beer was, it couldn't save our first dish of char-grilled calamari ($10). Whoever grilled the squid took the "char" part of char-grilled a little too far. The tentacles disintegrated into ash when picked up and the bodies were overcooked to a tight, rubbery consistency. The superb staff righted the wrong immediately when it was brought to their attention, and from there the meal became much better. The eggplant trio ($14) showed the versatility of a vegetable that is very underused. A base of pureed baked eggplant was prepared three ways: halim (lentils, garlic, and tangy yogurt), mirza (tomatoes, mint, and garlic) and baba (goat cheese, onions, and walnuts). Our favorite was the baba. It was rich and sweet, with good texture, and when scooped up with warm pita bread became a more-than filling appetizer.

The entrees were both good and showcased that Ozra can deal will vegetables as a main as well as meat. The veggie ghormeh sabzi ($15) was a citrusy mixture of green vegetables, mushrooms, red beans, and sun-dried limes. Ozra serves four different types of basmati rice to go with their entrees (plain, dill and fava beans, barberries, or sour cherries), and we chose the dill version with our ghormeh sabzi. The addition of sumac at the table, a lemony spice, added a much-needed zest that the dried limes could not achieve. This is a great dish for vegetarians (or anyone really) looking for something different.

The Ozra's temptation ($28) was a combination of the skewered items jujeh (Cornish hen), barg (marinated tenderloin), and beef kubideh (ground beef with onions). The tenderloin was good, if a little overcooked, while the kubideh was savory and moist, but it was the Cornish hens that stole the show. Seasoned and grilled like the other skewers, the generous portion of game hens was tender and succulent, with the right amount of char from the grill to lend smokiness. The addition of sumac to all three skewers lifted the dishes, and we would have liked salt but there was none to be found at the table (a mistake at any restaurant). Basmati rice with barberries-small and jewel-like berries similar to pomegranate seeds in color but without the hard seed inside-accompanies the dish. These diminutive sweet-and-tart rubies paired wonderfully with all three meats on the plate.

Dessert featured that ever-present confection in Mediterranean restaurants: baklava ($6). This version, though small, was sweet and gooey with walnuts and honey, but unlike most of the places around the city, was served warm, a nice treat and a good partner for the Persian mashti ice cream ($5). Made with lemon juice, rose water, and saffron, this ice cream was slightly sweet and a bit crunchy from the amount of water in the mix. It was well-balanced and really went well with the baklava.

Ozra just opened a month ago and may be working out the kinks of their grill, but they need to get it together if they want to stay in Little Italy. If they can produce well-executed versions of their dishes, they will be a welcome sight in a neighborhood that is looking for a kickstart from anywhere it can get one.

Ozra is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

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