Middle Eastern Delight
Zaytoon puts a fresh, contemporary, and upscale spin on traditional cuisine.
The mazza platter of five classic Middle-Eastern starters is a must-order item.
Middle Eastern food is enjoying something of a renaissance these days in the East Bay, where new spots like Ba-Bite, Oasis Kitchen, and Liba Falafel have added a youthful sparkle to established eateries such as Holy Land, Alborz, and Wally’s Café.
You might notice a common theme in these places: They’re mostly in the casual, quick, and affordable category. Dishing out filling portions of comforting kebabs, shawarma wraps, and hummus and falafel plates, these are the less glamorous places where people go to lunch several times per week and serve as affordable takeout options when you don’t feel like cooking. In other words, the terms “fine dining” and “Middle Eastern” haven’t tended to go hand in hand.
That seems to be changing. With the cuisine’s popularity on the rise, a couple of high-profile projects are in the works. First, Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, the couple behind East Bay favorite Camino, announced they would be launching a kebab concept taking the place of the shuttered Salsipuedes in Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood. Then came word that Saha, an upscale “Arabic fusion” restaurant that’s operated for 11 years in San Francisco, was relocating this year to a prominent corner location in Berkeley, replacing Herbivore at Haste Street and Shattuck Avenue. Finally, New York City’s avidly popular Halal Guys are (slowly) working on an outpost in downtown Berkeley.
But what may turn out to be the best of the bunch, Zaytoon, opened quietly over the summer on Albany’s Solano Avenue. The restaurant bills itself as Mediterranean but co-owners and brothers Izat and Walid Eliyan are Palestinian, and the cuisine leans toward the Levantine, or eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern end of the spectrum. For their part, the Eliyans described the food as “a tapestry of various influences on Jerusalem street food and the Palestine family table.”
However you define it, the restaurant pulls off a delicate balancing act in putting a contemporary fine-dining spin on what’s typically seen as fast-casual fare and doing it in a way that still feels generous—and not pretentious.
It does this in a sophisticated setting that feels worth taking the time to sit down and enjoy a full meal. The owners obviously put a lot of energy into transforming the former Solano Bar & Grill space. The dining area and bar are bisected by vertically hung cargo ropes stretched over a beautiful Mediterranean blue banquette running nearly the whole length of the restaurant, a cool idea that breaks up the fairly large interior while preserving the appealing sense of airiness and openness. Middle Eastern ingredients—preserved lemons, olives, chickpeas—are displayed in jars lining a shelf at the entrance. Edison bulbs dangle delicately from copper piping on the ceiling, and a clouded glass partition lends patrons just the right amount of connection to the kitchen.
Décor, of course, is a moot point if the food isn’t any good. Fortunately, the entire dining experience at Zaytoon, from cocktails to appetizers to main course to desserts, was excellent. I don’t often mention (let alone start with) cocktails when reviewing restaurants, but in this case they warrant a call-out.
Many of the upscale drink programs these days can blur together in my mind into a cloudy haze of homemade tinctures, exotic bitters, and artisan small-batch spirits. So it’s nice to see a cocktail list that’s unique, but also concise and coherent. The drinks at Zaytoon are simple but sprinkled with ingredients like tahini, allspice dram, and flower water that offer an interesting Middle Eastern twist. The refreshing, gin-based Midnight on Solano, for example, resonates brightly with the addition of Persian cucumber. A Second Date, meanwhile, offers a sweeter, richer alternative that’s perfect for a chilly night, smoothly blending rum, date syrup, flower water, walnut bitters, and orange oil. Even the nonalcoholic fresh-squeezed mint lemonade is made to order at the bar and a step above the norm. (I subsequently found out that Jessica Maria, owner of neighboring cocktail bar Hotsy Totsy Club, created the bar program.)
So, definitely start with a cocktail and then dig into the menu. The thing to remember about Zaytoon is that the kitchen, led by head chef and co-owner Haitham Salman, does the basics really well. That means the mazza platter, which offers a selection of five classic Middle Eastern starters, is a must-order. The tahini-loaded hummus is smooth and creamy, and the tabbouleh is light and zesty. But my favorites were the velvety baba ghannouj, the mashed eggplant exhibiting a wonderfully robust smoky flavor, and the falafel. I think we’ve all experienced cardboard-dry versions of these deep-fried Middle Eastern staples, but Zaytoon’s herb-spiked versions were light, moist, and flavorful. The secret, according to Salman, is simple: They make everything from scratch, which in this case means mixing in parsley and herbs (but no other binders or fillers) fresh from the local farmers market with ground-daily garbanzo beans and then frying them up to order.
The meat dishes are very good.
The meat dishes are also very good. The kefta kebab consisted of two thick, juicy links of ground meat and lamb. Grilled, served with roast vegetables, and generously seasoned with a lingering heat, the kefta reminded me of a suped-up version of a good spicy ballpark sausage. The meat was a touch richer and denser than I would have preferred, and it probably could have used a yogurt-based side instead of the mint-jalapeno sauce, which didn’t add much of anything to the dish. But I can’t argue with the execution or the unselfish portion, and the rice, fluffy and bouncy with an almost couscous-like texture was lovely (you can sub Kennebec fries for rice). I enjoyed the lamb shawarma more. The lamb is halal and locally raised and it tasted as much—the thick slices, spiced with sweet, aromatic clove, were tender and just a bit gamey and complemented by a cool yogurt sauce. An excellent moussaka, despite the flavorful layers of mozzarella, stewed tomato, ground beef, and chopped vegetables, came off as surprisingly light, perhaps because it lacked any starch element to weigh it down.
For me, though, what pushes Zaytoon over the top from merely very good into something special were the less common items that you can’t find on many other menus—and probably not coincidentally the food that overlaps the closest to the owners’ Palestinian/Jerusalem backgrounds. There were two, in particular, that I loved, both of which Salman says are “doll house versions” of dishes that are traditionally served at family gatherings and big parties. The first was the maklouba, translated as “upside down” because the dish is served on the plate inverted from the cooking pan. It’s a rice dish mixed with carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, pine nuts, and slow-cooked chicken (Mary’s) that was fall-apart tender, the juices infusing that lovely seasoned rice with extra flavor.
But my favorite thing I ate was the mansaf. Levantine in origin, the dish is anchored by that same locally raised lamb that’s marinated until exceedingly tender in aged yogurt and served over rice bottomed by a lavash flatbread. It’s definitely a dish for the more adventurous eater, but if you’re of that bent, it’s a must-order: The aged yogurt has a sour, slightly funky tang that I’m sure could turn some people off, but I found it totally addicting. The lavash, meanwhile, absorbed the sauce like a sponge at the bottom, and seemed to accentuate the yogurt’s intense bite.
It’s a bold dish and a bold move to offer it, albeit only on the dinner menu. And while I certainly understand the reasoning behind leaving some of the more exotic dishes off the lunch menu—aged yogurt has the potential to make for a dicey afternoon at the office—it did mean that I found dinner the more intriguing dining experience at Zaytoon. Those excellent cocktails are a second reason. The third? Dessert. Anyone with a sweet tooth should head straight for the decadent crumbled baklava with vanilla ice cream and caramel. The tahini sundae was even more of a revelation, the dry, chalky sweetness of the tahini adding an interesting almost malt-like element to the ice cream and chocolate sauce.
The nice part was that by the end of the night, sated with great food in a warm, welcoming setting, I wasn’t really thinking about Zaytoon as a really good Middle Eastern fine dining restaurant. Instead, I was just thinking of it as a really good restaurant, period.
One of the goals in opening Zaytoon, according to Salman, was “to challenge the perception of Middle Eastern cuisine. We are so much more than just your corner gyro/shawarma fast food restaurant.”
Published online on Nov. 11, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.
This report was published in the November edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.