Hookah lounge offers faint thrill and no buzz

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Can you get a buzz from these things?" we asked the only other customer at the Zeeba Lounge on a recent Friday night, as he sucked hard on his hookah, a water pipe filled with flavorings and tobacco. He certainly looked buzzed, his eyes at half mast, his face dreamy.

"If you concentrate," he said. He had come to Zeeba to relax, he said, after a night working as a busboy in a touristy local restaurant. And what better place to escape all those customers, all that noise, all that food and drink, than a place that has almost none of the above?

Kris Golshan, the owner of Zeeba Lounge, says he opened the place on a whim after seeing a hookah lounge in Las Vegas about a year ago. He left his corporate job, signed a lease and opened in September.

The space, in the heart of Federal Hill's thriving restaurant scene, had been vacant for years, Golshan said. To his credit, he has turned it into a sumptuous -- even sensuous -- den, with walls painted a rich terra cotta and plush sofas along the wall. Tables are low, and those not seated at the sofa will find themselves perched on rectangular ottomans about the same height as the tables.

Despite its good looks, Zeeba's appeal might be limited to harried busboys who want to kick back with a water pipe after a hard day on the job.

We noticed that this particular busboy paid his $12 for the hookah time and left without ordering food. Clearly, the hookah doesn't cause munchies. A liquor license, which Golshan says is in the works, would help.

Still, that busboy might have enjoyed the rich, garlicky hummus, green olive oil oozing around the edges of the ceramic bowl, served with triangular slices of hearty barbari bread. Or perhaps he would like the curried meatballs, tender little pingpong balls in a fragrant sauce, surrounding a dollop of thick Greek yogurt.

Food was brought promptly and placed in the middle of our small table. Clearly, we were supposed to share, especially since we didn't get place settings of our own. Portions were small, so we ordered several dishes each. Even though the bill added up quickly, we left without feeling full.

A plate of saffron-infused shrimp cost $8 and comprised just four medium-sized shrimp. For that price, they should be fabulous, and they were not.

On our server's recommendation, we tried the salad Olivia, a rather gooey and bland chicken salad, and the Mediterranean salad, a mix of cucumber and grape tomatoes surrounding chunks of tangy feta in a sprightly dressing of lemon and olive oil. The salad, surrounded by mint leaves, looked lovely.

Desserts included a warm, honey-drenched baklava that was deliciously sweet, though the layers of pastry were gooey rather than flaky and crisp. Zeeba's house ice cream, flavored with rose water and saffron, tasted remarkably like soap. Expensive soap, but soap nonetheless.

You can cobble together a decent meal at Zeeba's, but what's the point? If you're going to share little plates of food with friends, you'll probably want more innovative fare, or at least some alcohol to make the evening more interesting.

Golshan said Zeeba is turning into a late-night destination. Perhaps after a night on the town, the soothing bubbles of the water pipe hold appeal.

Since the hookah seemed to be Zeeba's main attraction, we decided to try it. (According to the menu, the hookah tobacco contains no tar, and trace amounts of nicotine are filtered. Golshan said traditional hookahs in the Middle East contain far more tobacco.)

It was a beautiful device, green and gold and quite tall. When we inhaled through a little hose, our lungs were warmed by the mix of flavored molasses and about 10 percent tobacco. It was a nice feeling, but, like Zeeba itself, it wasn't enough.

Hard as we concentrated, we felt no buzz at all.

Zeeba Lounge

Where: 916 Light St., Federal Hill

Call: 410-539-7900

Hours: Wednesdays and Thursdays, 5 p.m.-midnight, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Soups and salads $4-$6, "tastes" $5-$9

Food: **1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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