Working for the man sucks. So when brothers Peter and Jeremy Grider tired of that, they decided to pursue Jeremy's lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. Last spring the pair opened Zeba, a Mediterranean restaurant and lounge with a wood oven and open kitchen.

The Griders figured with degrees from the management program at Western Culinary Institute and experience gained around town--Jeremy as bar manager of Flirts at the Holiday Inn and manager of the Garden Club at the Rose Garden, and Peter as the manager of a grocery store--they could open their own place, with a little help from their folks, of course. But the difference between the dream and actually doing it, Peter admits, is simple: "You don't open your doors and everyone comes running in."

Perhaps not, but with its inviting, European-style facade and easy access to theaters and parking, Zeba is promising. Dark wood accents, a black and white tile floor, and artsy photographs help create a stylish and comfortable atmosphere. On recent visits, diners ranged from monochromatic office trons to trendy arts executives from the nearby South Park Blocks.

As for the food, Peter and Jeremy expanded upon the previous owner's Persian-based menu to include pizzas, pastas and pork for a Mediterranean theme. The brothers took cooking courses as part of their management training and say they learned much about food from their mother and their own kitchen experiments.

Alas, further experiments are necessary.

A midweek dinner was a culinary challenge. Memorable was the soup of the day, cream of cauliflower ($4.75), which tasted as if it had overdosed on Knorr's soup mix. It was so oversalted that "cauliflower" was a forgotten word on the server's tongue, the beige shade of the soup the only reminder that it was once a dignified member of the cruciferous vegetable family.

The grilled portabella mushrooms ($5.85), arriving at the same time as the soup, were so overmarinated as to make lips pucker and eyes water. The Caesar salad ($6.25) was passable but nothing special, and the hummus ($6.25) strangely coarse. The flatbread ($6.90), by comparison, was pretty good, served fresh and warm from the wood oven.

As far as entrees, the lamb kebab tasted too wine-y, while the sirloin kebab was dry and tough (kebab combo $14.50). On the plus side, an otherwise bland three-cheese pizza ($9) featured a tasty, fiery sauce.

Fast forward to Friday night. Service was better. Food was better. Entertainment was excellent--three young songwriters with guitars (visit Saturday for blues).

Since the server swore the advertised "Owner's Specials" really were special, we went for those: a top sirloin steak ($15.85) and an oven-baked salmon ($13.75). The steak was expertly grilled and seasoned; the salmon featured a delicate crust on the outside yet was tender and moist inside. Even the requisite vegetables on the side, carrots, were tooth-tender and tasty.

While appetizers were still lacking and dessert, a chocolate cheesecake ($5), was served half-frozen with a layer of ice crystals in the middle, both entrees were so good as to make one completely mystified as to what went wrong the previous Tuesday night. Lunar eclipse? Weapons of mass destruction? Just a bad night?

Unfortunately, lunch days later didn't do much to dispel the impression that the brothers Grider need to rethink many of their dishes for presentation and, mostly, flavor. The mixed-green salad ($5) looked as if it were coated in Pepto-Bismol, the raspberry vinaigrette so sweet it overpowered the mushrooms and parmesan. The walnut pomegranate chicken ($6.25 lunch, $11.65 dinner) looked like a dish of gravy and didn't carry even a hint of the tart-and-sweet flavor of the seedy fruit.

Zeba offers potential in its relaxed atmosphere, reasonable prices and convenient location. Peter and Jeremy Grider may have realized a dream, but they've left plenty of room for improvement.

Zeba Restaurant & Lounge

1222 SW Salmon St., 227-1655. 11 am-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday, 4-11 pm Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate

Picks: Top sirloin, wood oven-baked salmon.

Nice touches: Several Oregon wines on the wine list, live music Friday and Saturday nights.

Zeba celebrates its first anniversary this month.