New east Cobb restaurant lacks zeal

There are definite advantages to living outside the Perimeter. Proximity to an extensive selection of independent, chef-driven restaurants is not one of them. Or is it?

You’ve likely heard about the Roswell restaurant boom over the past few years, but you might not have caught word of a small, but encouraging, budding of independent restaurants in east Cobb. Seed Kitchen & Bar, which opened in 2011, experienced success and was quickly embraced by locals grateful to avoid the 10-minute drive to Roswell, let alone a trip to Decatur, Inman Park or Midtown for a great meal.

In the past few months, a couple of more restaurants-to-watch have opened in east Cobb, including Zeal. Here chef Eric Mulville, former executive chef at Maggiano’s Buckhead, presents a menu intended to be both healthful and satisfying for comfort food cravings. Technique he has down — never an overcooked item, and proteins like the skirt steak ($21) are surprisingly tender and moist. The whiskey and craft beer flights offer their own kind of oasis in the suburban chain-restaurant sprawl. But lack of seasoning and Mulville’s sweet leanings taint otherwise auspicious dishes. The food appeals more in concept than on the plate.

Much like Seed and just down the way, Zeal is tucked into one of a number of strip malls along Johnson Ferry Road. It’s made good use of the space, building out a very appealing patio area that will likely be well used as the weather becomes more accommodating. The restaurant, its interior marked by a patchwork of varying patterns and textures, is divided with one half devoted to lounge seating, shuffleboard tables and a string of bar stools.

Zeal’s casual atmosphere makes for an inviting community hangout. Use it as a place to grab a fine burger tricked out with roasted Hatch green chiles ($13) and to sample the craft beer selections like the yeasty Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale ($6). I could also see sharing some small plates with friends on the patio come spring.

Order smalls of the corn-studded shrimp and grits ($10) and the Georgia trout ($9). Trust me, the small portions are plenty big. The trout fillet with a just-right seasoning of cornmeal and smoked paprika comes paired with a sprightly combination of Israeli couscous, golden raisins and toasty pine nuts with a slightly sweet white balsamic. In this particular instance, the trout’s seasoning counterbalanced the sweet notes of the dish.

If you’ve made a resolution to eat healthier this year, Mulville, inspired by his health coach wife, wrote menu items just for you. In fact, Zeal’s top seller is the crispy kale salad ($9). That may have you scratching your head if you’ve had similarly described offerings elsewhere, because crispy kale is something of a misnomer here. According to Mulville, the rather chewy raw kale takes its name from the accompanying “crispy” (perhaps crunchy?) raw veggies including carrots, red onions and cucumbers. It’s a healthy workout in itself — for your jaw.

You’ll also find that kale in the tahini-less garden hummus ($6). The smooth green mixture incorporates it with spinach and chickpeas, but fails to incorporate much in the way of seasoning or flavor. A little squeeze of the lemon from my water glass at least added a bit of pep.

You’ll also notice Zeal’s menu highlights a number of gluten-free items. In fact, Mulville makes all fried foods gluten-free to limit cross contamination in the fryer. But you’ll never know it. In fact, I was sure that the piquant red chicken lollipops ($11) were coated in flour. Nope. The little red-pepper-curry-spiced bites were dusted in cornstarch instead.

The best specimen is the cornmeal-dusted zucchini ($7), my favorite dish at Zeal. Tall fingers of the cornmeal-battered vegetable come presented in a small, paper-lined tin bucket. A thin lemony aioli keeps the mildly crunchy, seasoned crust light, bright and fresh.

Gluten isn’t Mulville’s nemesis. That would be sugar. I’d almost rather it be salt, but there was a marked lack of salting in favor of sweetening of dishes. Remember that kale salad? Setting aside my disappointment that it wasn’t the crispy, fried version, the bigger drag came in the form of a cloyingly sweet cream basil dressing.

Ditto for the French onion soup ($10 with half sandwich) minus any cheese that would have given it both salt and balance. And let’s tell this same story once more with the balsamic-glazed pork tenderloin ($11) in a pool of sticky sauce and paired with a lovely apple-cinnamon hush puppy — lovely for a dessert.

For now I’m not sure that Zeal will save me from making the 35-45 minute drive into town. Yet if I’m in the neighborhood and want a bite and a beverage, I could find myself snuggled into one of the comfy chairs in the lounge or perched on a patio bench with friends.

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