SCOTT SNYDER'S French-Arabesque restaurant Levant opened four months ago on East Burnside. It had restaurant-of-the-year buzz: Chefs loved it, the press was rapt, and diners earmarked it, sight unseen, for special occasions.
The menu is bursting with inspiration. It conveys that chef Snyder is not simply a cook, but that he approaches his dishes with the deep character knowledge of a clever novelist, given to creative liberties. The atmosphere of the restaurant and its food elicits romanticized notions of a time and a place that does not exist, weaving together an entirely plausible fantasy cuisine of cultures from the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, from Morocco to Greece, with nods to the Sephardic Jewish culture on which Snyder bases his remarkably cohesive vision. The handsome, light-filled dining room's massive, spider-like chandelier suggests the ceiling of a grand Bedouin tent.
For appetizers—most of which will evolve between visits—the chilled cucumber and yogurt soup ($9, with lime, mint, and finely chopped piquillo peppers) is tart, silken, and refreshing. The mint appears in the odd sip, evoking the aroma of wild herbs baking in the California foothills. A mild, meaty sardine à la plancha ($12, with fresh charmoula and a deeply caramelized grilled lemon) is large enough for two to share. Grilled asparagus with grated hard-boiled egg ($10) is served with a luscious bottarga aioli not unlike a caviar mayonnaise. On one visit, grilled halloumi cheese ($9, good for four to share) was served with red chiles and—as proof of a high-caliber imagination at work—a candied fennel and saffron jam.
The lamb borek "cigars" are more like cigarettes, and though flavorful, at $8 the order is so underwhelmingly small it jarred me out of the moment. Fresh fava beans with shallot ($10) were just fine until the tiny dice of preserved orange appeared from the bottom of the cazuela: If the flavor of the orange permeated this dish more thoroughly, it would be elevated from simply "good" to a dish more fitting Levant's narrative.
Of the four mains on offer, the generous hearth-roasted lamb ($29) was the most consistently satisfying. A chop (rib or loin), fire-roasted leg, and a succulent harissa-spiced meatball are plated atop a buttery, jus-enriched sauté of peas, mint, cilantro, and potatoes. The meats were generally perfectly roasted, though the kitchen seems to err on the side of over- rather than under-cooking.
A large, beautifully charred half Cornish game hen ($22), is served atop fattoush (a bread salad of fried pita and vinaigrette-dressed herbs), sometimes with an aioli, sometimes without. Intensely fragrant from the wood-fired grill, it's simple, flawless chicken cooked the way it should be. The spice-crusted and seared medallions of marlin à la plancha ($26) stay interesting thanks to a well-matched Aleppo pepper aioli and the mixed textures of a light pine nut/raisin relish.
Desserts are consistent with the tone of the menu, but eatability issues and an absence of acidic high notes keeps them from wowing. A Moroccan mint ice cream sandwich with marmalade ($7) was palate cleansing and simple, but hard to get on the fork. Little gels of fresh Turkish Delight ($4), or the strawberry ricotta doughnuts with cardamom rose jam ($7), are recommended for a light finish.
Levant's craft cocktail program features several outstanding creations. The BeeBrush Fizz (rye, dry curaçao, lemon verbena syrup, lemon, egg white, $9), shaken and served up, is tight as a drum, with the simple rye flavor clarified and presented for straightforward enjoyment beneath a thick, creamy head that's fragrant with fresh lemon. The Shrab Swizzle (tequila, fino sherry, strawberry shrub, citrus, $9) creates a balanced sweet and sour flavor strong enough to rein in the tequila's harsh salinity without hiding the smoky agave. Most noteworthy is the Tasvan Delight (aquavit, Old Tom gin, house carrot syrup, lime, $12). Also served up, it looks like a Belgian ale and tastes coldly of bitters and black licorice, the carrot syrup not easily identifiable but filling out the body with a delicious vegetal sweetness.
Front-of-house staff are trained in the details of fine dining, and uniformly friendly and professional. My only disappointment is that they seem to disappear for a painfully long time once the mains are done.
Other complaints are few. The over-designed first course silverware is nearly unusable, and seems to physically writhe out of your hands. The room, with its blazing hearth, can get too warm, and in the odd corner, needles of evening sun can pierce cracks in the window shades and flash-fry innocent guests.
Overall, though, Levant successfully draws us into unfamiliar territory, charms us with the exoticism of its deeply satisfying food, and leaves us asking just how inexhaustible the chef's imagination must be.
Open Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 pm. Dinner for two with cocktails, starters, mains, and dessert averages about $100 pre-tip.