It's been more than four years since Wa Restaurant, a hidden gem near the Universal Studios backlot, shut its doors. When I reviewed the restaurant in February of 2010, I talked of how every so often a restaurant in this city makes a conscious effort to challenge the palates of its patrons and how, more often than not, the restaurant ends up closing due to a lack of response. I also talked of a foreboding consternation, given the dearth of diners inside the beautiful Japanese-fusion restaurant and how the complex in which Wa was housed was devoid of tenants. Sure enough, they ceased operations a year later, and those who had the pleasure of dining at Wa still lament its closure.
So I was excited to hear that Taboon Bistro – a restaurant boasting the flavors of the Middle East – had moved into Wa's slick and tranquil space. For one, Mediterranean cuisine is a little more accessible than Japanese fusion, and surely the magical hand of J.K. Rowling had led to increased traffic in and around the Promenade at Universal Plaza. Timing is everything in this business and Taboon, I thought, might have just caught lightning in a bottle. But that sense – that foreboding consternation I felt at Wa – was just as palpable as we entered Taboon's empty dining room one Friday evening. The decor, save for the tables and chairs, hadn't changed one bit. The place still smelled like Wa, but it also reeked of defeat.
Our server, bubbly and charming, seemed enthused about nearly every dish on the menu, and while some recommendations panned out, others ... well, others were the result of a naive palate, to put it kindly. First, the good: basterma ($8). The dried rolls of spicy beef made a splashy entrance with the lovely addition of labneh dip. Grape leaves ($6), served slightly warm, were gobbled up wholeheartedly. And that's where the good ends. The passable: Habra naeh ($10) is a steak tartare of sorts, but with a dollop of garlic and a sprig of mint in place of an egg yolk and capers. It was nicely presented, but just a bit too bland. Artichoke hearts ($6) anointed with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and garlic were simple, straightforward and hardly spectacular. The kafta kebab ($16), which I had enjoyed on a previous lunchtime visit, was dried out on the inside, and it didn't help that the dish was served with a subpar flatbread. And the bad: dry and lifeless squares of haloumi cheese ($8) woefully presented with messy cuts of tomato quadrants. Chicken shawarma ($15), heavily basted in garlic and ginger, had a flavor unlike that of any shawarma I've ever tasted, which brings us to the ugly: the grouper ($24), or rather, "grouper." The quotes indicate that neither I nor my fisherwoman of a wife believed for a second that what we were served was grouper. It didn't look like grouper, and it certainly didn't taste like grouper, though the heavy (and I mean heavy) lemon-pepper marinade made it near-impossible to tell what it was.
Our search to end on a high note yielded mixed results. Crispless baklava ($3) was an utter bust, while osmalieh ($4) – a crunchy nest of phyllo filled with clotted cream and topped with crushed pistachios – fared a bit better. It looked nice, and I liked the texture, but there was a flavor vacuum nevertheless.
It's unfortunate that missing elements and odd flavor profiles mar so many of the offerings here. The fact that Taboon's namesake – the doughy stuffed flatbread that's such a popular street food item in the Middle East – isn't offered is, in many ways, telling.