I thought I knew all the restaurants on Thayer Street. After late night burritos at Baja and sushi splurges at Shark, I considered myself well-versed in the College Hill restaurant scene. But Kartabar was an enigma to me. After walking by the eatery a few times, I finally found the restaurant's nondescript, dark entrance — on Thayer between Meeting and Cushing streets — underneath a misleading sign that read "The Spot."
The restaurant's ambience is almost as confusing as its entrance. To the left as I entered was a dark room that seemed to be a lounge, which stood in stark contrast to the huge television blasting a football game for the bar on my right. The actual seating area stretched toward the back and was sleekly furnished — candle-lit and slightly too dim, but perhaps a romantic date spot if not for the sports bar a few feet away.
Fortunately, the menu was more focused — and appealing — than the decor. Traditional American dishes joined the mostly Mediterranean cuisine to create a wide offering of salads, kabobs, sandwiches and pizzas. While the more formal entrees, such as the sesame tuna and filet mignon did sound appealing, spending $20 on one course seemed blasphemous when Nice Slice's $3 slices beckoned from across the street.
After a longish wait, my friendly waitress brought out the Kartabar "meza," a delicious sampling of dips and Mediterranean specialties perfect for sharing. Each item tasted distinctly flavorful. The hummus and tabouli were both herbaceous and fresh, providing a light contrast to the savory babaganouj. The dolmas — stuffed grape leaves — were textural and avoided the common pitfall of being overly salty. And the tzatziki, a yogurt dipping sauce, perfectly complemented the other dishes.
The freshness was mirrored in the beef carpaccio. Drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil and sprinkled with asiago cheese, the dish had a simplicity that allowed the high quality of the meat itself to shine through.
In an entree salad of roasted peppers, artichokes, grilled portobello and chicken, the kitchen's effort to highlight each ingredient made for a complex and delicious blend of flavors. The sweet and tangy lemon-garlic dressing expertly balanced out the saltiness of the capers and olives on the plate. The enticing combination of ingredients provided textural intrigue, especially paired with the crunchy homemade pita chips.
The coconut shrimp appetizer, one of the menu's attempts at non-traditional Mediterranean cuisine, was more disappointing. The small shrimp were chewy and overcooked and served with a teriyaki dipping sauce that tasted as if it were right out of a bottle. The accompaniments — tempura asparagus and zucchini — were greasy and lacked seasoning. If the dish speaks for the restaurant's other divergences from Mediterranean food, it may be best to stick with the principal cuisine.
The flavorful, fresh food and attentive service made up for the dark, confused atmosphere of Kartabar. And, while the restaurant may be a bit pricey for those of us used to Thayer Street's abundance of cheap eats, the savory meal is well worth it for a date-night splurge or post-exam celebration.