Joseph "ZouZou" Abraham grew up in a small Syrian village surrounded by apricot and fig trees. "As a child," he says, "it felt like no other culture existed." Now, with ZouZou, his light and airy 18-month-old Mediterranean delicatessen, he's adapting the street food of the Middle East to the flavors and cooking techniques he's learned here.
His family left Syria for Beirut when he was nine or ten. As a teenager he trained as a jeweler but played drums in a rock band at night, hoping to someday make it as a musician. His ultimate goal was to immigrate to the United States, where he had family. But because of the civil war, the American Embassy in Lebanon was closed. So in 1976 he picked up and moved to Greece, where he got by on odd jobs while saving money and waiting for his visa to come through. Finally, in 1980, he arrived in Chicago.
"One of my cousins worked at the Ritz and got me a job as a busboy," he says. "When they first gave me the uniform and tray, I was embarrassed. I wanted to be a rock musician. Instead, I was walking around the dining room cleaning ashtrays."
Both the rock-and-roll dream and his original career as a jeweler started to fade as Abraham--affable and self-effacing--advanced at the RitzCarlton. One year after starting he became the assistant manager of the Greenhouse, the hotel's tearoom and cocktail lounge.
In 1984 Abraham wanted to move up in the management ranks, but was told he had to learn the business from the ground up. He obliged by getting a bartending certificate and then becoming a waiter. He started out in the cafe and was soon promoted to the main dining room. There, he came under the influence of chef Sarah Stegner--now the acclaimed executive chef but then just one of the cooks on the line. "If Sarah or another chef was doing a mirepoix or a demi-glace, I would go behind the line and ask how things were made," he says. Soon he was doing prep work in the kitchen on his days off. At home, he and his wife Nikki Silvio--whom he'd met while working in the Greenhouse--spent their spare time cooking. He started trying out his mother's recipes for kifta kabobs, tabbouleh, fattoush, and apricot-colored potato salad. He also began developing his own variations on traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, experimenting with Western herbs and flavors and the techniques he'd picked up at the Ritz.
He left the Ritz in 1996 to help Steven Chiappetti open Mango, the celebrated (now defunct) contemporary American restaurant in River North. Abraham wanted to get a feel for what the business was like outside of the rarefied, institutionalized world of the Ritz-Carlton. He waited tables at Mango for three years and soaked up everything he could about running a small independent restaurant.
In March of 1999, he and Silvio took the plunge and opened ZouZou. Abraham serves as chef and operations manager; Silvio has kept her job as a paralegal but takes care of the books and shares in all the management decisions. From the beginning, Abraham was an enthusiastic chef and often found himself working 13-hour days or longer: "One time I got up at 4 AM to drive in my shorts to ZouZou so I could soak beans for falafel, then drove back home and went to bed."
A year and a half later, ZouZou hums with loyal clients, but Abraham's long days haven't stopped because, as he says, "constant attention ensures consistency, quality, and freshness." Many patrons swear the cuisine-full of fresh ingredients and complex flavors-makes them "feel good about themselves." "My style of cooking adds things that are not typical," he says. His shawirmas--wraps of spit-roasted chicken or a combination of beef and lamb-marinate in white wine instead of the traditional white wine vinegar. "Wine alone makes it more delicate," says Abraham. Pita sandwiches are wrapped in a mini lavash-Middle Eastern flat bread-making them lighter than traditional pita wraps. His couscous is a traditional Moroccan dish--a savory mix of carrots, zucchini, turnips, chickpeas, and yellow raisins--cooked in a nontraditional French mirepoix and served with tangy merguez sausage, chicken, lamb, or beef.
He grills eggplant to give the baba ghannouge--eggplant pureed with tahini and garlic--its smoky flavor. Fattoush is made the old-fashioned way by mixing fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, scallions, mint, and sumac with lemon juice and olive oil to order, folding in toasted pita at the last minute to ensure that the bread doesn't get soggy. Vegetarian ZouZou--a "lasagna" of eggplant, baby cauliflower, tomato, potato, and zucchini--is an interpretation of one of his mother's recipes, with a few twists. "I do things my own way for health reasons. I also want you to have a little surprise," Abraham says.
So, red grapes add crunch and bursts of juice to summer yogurt cucumber soup. Shawirmas and falafels can be ordered "regular," topped with tomato, cucumber, lettuce, and tahini, or as tasty "specials" bulging with hummus, eggplant, red cabbage salad, and harissa. Garlic mousse adds sizzle to fried potatoes with sumac. Desserts overflow with sweet dates or honey and pistachios. And at the end of a meal, Turkish cardamom coffee often induces sighs of pleasure.
But perhaps the biggest draw at ZouZou is Abraham himself. He's a master of the art of coddling customers--greeting regulars by name, welcoming newcomers with menu tips, and telling tales with impeccable comic timing--as solicitous as if you were dining at the Ritz.
ZouZou is at 1406 W. Belmont, 773-755-4020.
Brothers Kee and Macku Chan, formerly of Mirai Sushi, have left to open Heat, a 50-seat restaurant at 1507 N. Sedgwick, serving sushi and other traditional Japanese fare including fresh fish plucked right out of a tank in the dining room. It's slated to open by late September.
Annam Cafe at 724 Clark in Evanston has purchased the neighboring Mambo Cuban restaurant. It's now Annam Cuban restaurant, but everything else-decor, chef, and menuremains the same.
Cannella's, the long-standing Italian restaurant at the intersection of Lincoln and Wells, was reincarnated August 30 as a I 100-seat eatery at 1132 W. Grand.
Olive Tree Cafe at 5200 N. Clark, has closed; the owners plan to expand the Middle Eastern bakery next door into the space to create a larger grocery store.
--LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.