Tiny white lights separate Zerza's red walls from a green ceiling. But if the paint job says "Christmas," the music crones Valentine's Day. "Crazy," Patsy Cline sang, followed by "Unforgettable," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Make Someone Happy," and a host of breathy, jazzy French tunes. Our ears have never felt so wooed.
Luckily the food wasn't trying nearly as hard. In fact, the Moroccan and Mediterranean dishes on offer effortlessly skirted the line between sweet and savory. An order of saganaki ($7), barely fried feta doused in honey, set that tone. A slab of feta on its own would be too salty, but the honey's sweetness helped undercut the cheese's inherent tartness, and the clinging shreds of batter complicated the texture in a good way. There was plenty to split.
Hummus ($5.75), our other appetizer, arrived topped with a healthy pour of olive oil and hearty shake of paprika. We scooped up the uncomplicated, slightly sour mixture using a seemingly bottomless bowl of warm pita triangles.
Apologizing that the kitchen was out of the meatballs that comprise the kefta tagine ($14), our server suggested substituting merguez. The merguez tagine ($15.75) arrived in a clay dish topped with a conical top, hiding a complex stew of lamb sausage, a poached egg, tomatoes, and spices.
"Anytime anyone says, 'Oh This is so good. What's in it?' The answer invariably comes back, cinnamon," Jerry Seinfeld once argued. And so it was with the tagine. We upended the side of couscous into the tagine, swirled everything together, and enjoyed the resulting aroma-flavor, one-two punch.
However, nothing could beat the chicken bastilla ($15.95). Its patty of pastry crisscrossed with cinnamon and powdered sugar looked so much like a dessert, and smelled so much like the treats we got at country fairs in our youth, we wondered whether we'd made a mistake not saving it for dessert. We broke through the tight crust to find a dense, pleasantly dry mixture of chicken, saffron, almonds, onions, and pepper, extraordinary enough to have us Googling restaurants here that serve it with pigeon, as is tradition in Morocco.
We finished with two small scoops of the fig ice cream ($5.75), though we weren't wild about the mixed-in minuscule pieces of fruit (we prefer ice cream that doesn't require so much chewing). A better choice might have been the baklava ($5.75). No doubt some will find the bastilla sweet enough for an entree and dessert.
Sundays through Thursdays, from 4 to 6.30 pm, Zerza offers a prix fixe: one appetizer and one entree from a limited menu for $15.95. From 12 to 4, there's also a lunch special with smaller portions and cheaper appetizers.
In an earlier incarnation up the street, Zerza had rose petals adorning its stairs. Now a flatscreen competes with exquisite stained glass chandeliers to emit the softest colored glow. Luckily, the food, with its confident dedication to palate-pleasingness, makes it easy to ignore the muddled atmosphere. Zerza is best for: a date who isn't easily swayed by appearances.
About the authors:Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.