There isn't a surface inside Zatar that isn't touched by color or pattern. The walls of the tiny, long room, which probably doesn't seat more than thirty, are covered with pan-Mediterranean pastoral scenes incorporating Babylonian ruins and the Parthenon. When the paintings give way to sponge-bathed orange walls, a mosaic of intricately painted platters take over. The tables are inlaid with tiles, and fringes of orange beads dangle from the lamps.
Like the mural ("Does every Middle Eastern restaurant have to have one?" murmurs my friend Terence), Zatar's food covers a lot of ground, from Morocco to Spain, Egypt to Lebanon. It reflects the life and times of chef Waiel Majid, who was raised in northern Iraq and regularly travels around the region to visit his relations.
Waiel and his wife Kelly have owned Zatar's previous incarnation, Europa, since 1995. Several months ago the two renovated the space -- all but hidden on Shattuck Avenue just off of University -- and reinvented it as a restaurant and catering company specializing in "eclectic Mediterranean cuisine."
The Majids may play fast and loose with culinary tradition, but they pay close attention to where the food comes from. They use meat from humanely raised animals, make their own yogurt from organic milk, and raise much of the produce in a half-acre organic garden in their Oakland backyard. In order to tend both the garden and their lives, they only open the restaurant up for lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays. (They will also open on the off days for private parties.)
According to The Oxford Companion to Food, zatar (or za'atar), Arabic for wild thyme, refers to a blend of dried thyme, sumac, and ground sesame seeds. Throughout the Middle East, zatar is commonly sprinkled on labneh (yogurt) or fried eggs. The first thing diners receive is a small heap of the herb mix. The server pours a ring of olive oil around it and sets a basket of warm whole-wheat flatbread, crisped outside and tender within, next to it.
The menu is split into two halves: meza (or tapas) and appetizers on the left, entrées on the right. The meza platter for two or three people showcases the traditional Mediterranean starters. Velvety grilled eggplant slices, soaked in olive oil, frame dollops of dip to be scooped up with more flatbread. The hummus could have been picked up with more garlic and lemon juice, but the other three had great character. A close cousin to the mild, creamy baba ghanoush, the lebna bil kusa combined puréed roasted squash with sharply fermented yogurt, garlic, and tahini. The muhamara, a purée of roasted red peppers and walnuts tarted up with sweet-sour pomegranate juice, worked especially well as a dip for thinly crusted, soft falafel that were powerfully scented with coriander seeds.
The other small plates show more mutt-like culinary pedigrees. Sweet pomegranate juice dominated the light vinaigrette, which coated a mixed green salad with caramelized pecans, slices of ripe pear, and dabs of fresh goat cheese. The greens have an assertive herbal flavor that most commercially grown "organic baby greens" lack. Large grilled cremini mushroom caps filled with feta cheese and garlic could have been cooked longer so that the mushrooms released more juice and earthy flavor.
The main courses follow the standard meat-starch-vegetable structure of Californian bistros -- the starch, rice or couscous; the vegetables, a grilled medley. But the owners' commitment to all-organic, free-range ingredients comes at a price. I found $40 a person for two courses and a glass of wine a bit steep for such simply prepared food. If you have less cash -- they don't accept plastic -- go for lunch or stick to the small plates.
That doesn't mean that the food wasn't good. I'm often disappointed by kabobs, for instance. Though the complex spice rubs and marinades are enjoyable, the meat gets overcooked quickly -- often a cultural preference. But Majid knows just when to pull the fat off the fire. The skewered lamb chunks in the entrée called "grilled leg of lamb" sliced easily with a knife, revealing rosy centers. The chicken kabobs must have been marinated in yogurt for days: Though cooked through, the spicy pink meat dissolved in the mouth -- the most tender brochette I've ever tasted.
Both kabobs were served with basmati rice scented with cardamom pods and grilled vegetables. One complaint: the bitter, crunchy grilled vegetables. Zucchini and eggplant were made with the grill in mind, and at Zatar they turned out tender and flavorful. But after grilling thousands of pounds of vegetables over the years, I have learned that less-watery broccoli, green beans, asparagus, and okra benefit from a quick blanching first. That way, the cellulose starts to break down, and the veggies pick up the seasonings better.
The grilled vegetables and nicely steamed couscous -- not that grainy mush that people used to the instant stuff think is couscous -- accompanied a braised lamb shank with figs. The meat pulled off the bone easily, and tasted best when paired with slices of the sweet figs stewed with it. Large grilled tiger prawns rubbed with a zippy harissa (chile sauce) and lemon surrounded a mound of plain basmati rice and vegetables. Again, the cooking couldn't be faulted, but a sauce or something else was needed to bring the items together with the other elements on the plate.
To accompany the desserts, try a demitasse of thick, hair-raising Turkish coffee or an hourglass-shaped glass of tea; several kinds are made with mint straight from the garden. Skip the baklava; weighed down with sticky honey and walnut-pistachio paste, it tastes like it could have come from a corner store. Another dessert, rice pudding, requires a bit of cultural adjustment to enjoy. The creamy pudding, dusted on top with cinnamon and chopped pistachios, smelled like an orange grove but tasted like -- nothing. There was no sugar in the mix, and it took four or five spoonfuls to trace the subtle sweetness of the milk and rice. But the aromatic saffron ice cream with pistachios won approval on first bite.
Service can be a little too amateurish for the price. On my first visit, our good-natured waiter took the time to go over our meza platter, explaining each dollop of food. But as he only had two tables in the restaurant, it seemed unnecessary to flag him down for water, wine, bread, and the check. Our second night's waitress, though, was able to calmly and casually oversee five tables at once. On both nights the courses arrived leisurely, but we enjoyed the pace.
The Majids have put together a wine list as small as the restaurant but nicely chosen. Many come from the sunnier winemaking regions -- Spain, Provence, Australia -- which produce robust, fruity wines that pair well with the food. Some are even organic.
Every Wednesday, Zatar zooms in on the cuisine of one of the Mediterranean countries, and matches wines to the regional specialties. It's yet another way that this tiny, very personal restaurant unites cultures, flavors, and ideals.
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