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Restaurant Tours: Mediterranean mix-and-match

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Who would guess that a place called Jezebel was named after the owner's sainted mother? Opened in July just a block south of Wrigley Field, it's the brainchild of Farrid Nobahar, who's half Egyptian, half Iranian, and who wanted to open a Mediterranean restaurant emphasizing Italian food.

My friend Poppy and I argued over which country the decor is meant to represent. I said Italy, citing the little Italian lights in the ceiling that simulate a starry night and a mural that looks like an Italian archway. She said the shelves holding a Chinese bird cage, Spanish vases, and bottles of Italian olive oil show it's supposed to embody an entire region--unless there's a country called "faux." Not that there's anything wrong with faux. Poppy and I use faux finishes on our faces every day, but never with such dazzling effect as at Jezebel--they're on the walls, the ornate off-white chairs, and the 1930s-looking bar, where Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains could have acted cynical. A lot has been done with a little imaginative draping of muslin. You might think this was the work of a set designer, but it's the combined vision of the owner and Mark Prokopeak, an artist who should consider a career in interior decorating.

The food is artfully presented too, though there's nothing to make you wonder how much they had to handle it to get it to look that way, and considering the current fashion for 3-D food edifices, nothing you need a PhD in English to deconstruct--just a flower on a tray of attractively arranged hors d'oeuvres or desserts, a confetti of minced parsley on the rim of a bowl of pasta, and color-balanced entrees.

A cunning little red-and-white paper bag filled with thin, crisp lavash (a tasty Middle Eastern flat bread) sits on each table, along with a dish of yogurt-and-shallot dip. A free complimentary hors d'oeuvre of soft lavash rolled with a mixture of cream cheese, black beans, fresh carrots, and romaine lettuce, and served with slices of cool cucumber, tasted too good not to be fattening, but it's made with low-calorie cream cheese. Since the lavash rolls seemed relatively unfattening, we decided to pop for the appetizer "tasting" for two or more ($7.95 per person). It consists of excellent baked empanadas filled with chorizo, green olives, black beans, and Asiago cheese; spicy baked chicken; warm, crusty garlic bread topped with fresh tomato, basil, and buffalo mozzarella; juicy baby back ribs baked in a gingery tomato sauce; a marvelous thin-crust pistachio-pesto pizza with mozzarella and seafood sausage; and, the only false note, disappointingly bland grape leaves filled with rice, chick-peas, and pine nuts. This enormous "tasting" may have seemed overpriced, but it's a wonderful and inexpensive alternative to a main course.

Entree standouts include the firm linguine with crisp, grilled fresh vegetables and pistachio pesto ($11.25); golden roasted half-chicken stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, and feta cheese, a dish native to Greece; and tangy slow-grilled, marinated skinless chicken in lemon, olive oil, and herbs ($8.95), Nobahar's family recipe, of Egyptian origin. The roasted rack of baby lamb ($16.95) with mushrooms and onions is supposedly scented with rosemary, but not enough for us to taste; and skewers of shrimp, artichoke hearts, and tomato grilled with a honey mustard glaze ($13.25) suffer from an overdose of honey. Entrees are served with either basmati or saffron rice and crisp, garlicky green beans. No butter is used in any of Jezebel's dishes, not even the desserts. Portions are generous, but find room for a side of wonderful sauteed, barely cooked, fresh creamed spinach with Parmesan ($3).

Desserts cost $4.50, and daily selections vary. We had lemon pound cake in a sauce of pureed raspberries with a touch of rosewater and honey. Buttermilk is used in place of butter to give it a wonderfully rich taste. On another occasion I tried a luscious chocolate mousse cake made with both dark and white chocolate. Other choices usually include a Grand Marnier-and-brandy-based zabaglione with peaches, raspberries, blueberries, and oranges, and flourless chocolate cake. Chocolate was brought to the Mediterranean from Mexico by Columbus and Vasco da Gama, who were under the impression (along with Montezuma, who drank 50 golden goblets a day) that it was an aphrodisiac. We now know that it isn't, but try telling that to chocoholics like Poppy, who insists the earth moves every time she eats a Ding Dong.

Poppy's still in her thin jeans, and I gained only a pound after each visit. It must have been the low-calorie cream cheese and the butterless desserts that still manage to taste fattening. Of course we ate twice as much--it was like discount shopping.

Jezebel, 3517 N. Clark, is open for dinner from 6 to 11 Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 12 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 10 Sunday; it's closed Monday. Sunday brunch is served from 11 to 3. They take reservations, and indoor valet parking is available for $4. For more information call 929-4000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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