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Zeitouna Lebanese Bistro  |  19.12.2011

Zeitouna: Halawa ice-cream and cinnamon taboula

Zeitouna, a new Lebanese restaurant recently opened in the mall of Nile Towers, has replaced Wagamama’s.
There can never be too many Lebanese restaurants in town. You see, Lebanese cuisine is varied as a result of Lebanon’s varied topography and each dish can be made and spiced a number of ways according to its region of origin.

Zeitouna, a new Lebanese restaurant recently opened in the mall of Nile Towers, has replaced Wagamama’s. Though the tragedy of the closing is one that this writer is working hard on overcoming, it being replaced by a very promising Lebanese restaurant is helping me cope.

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Zeitouna is a casual place offering up mezzehs, main dishes of grilled meats and chicken, dessert and beverages. No alcoholic drinks are served seeing as the restaurant is located on the premises of a mall.

The menu is somewhat limited, but I was told that there are great plans for Zeitouna to expand its offerings to include saj — a delicious Lebanese sandwich made on a hot surface from thin dough and stuffed with both sweet and savory fillings — and more traditional home cooked recipes. As is the usual with Lebanese food, it’s always a light and very healthy option.

No meal is expected to take more than 40 minutes from seating to paying your check, says Zeitouna owner Marc Khalife. Once you place your order, the food is meant to be served quickly. Bear in mind that Zeitouna has opened in an office complex and the staff work hard on bringing your order quickly to accommodate business lunches.

Being the glutton that I am, I went to Zeitouna three times in one week. While noticing inconsistency in the overall taste of dishes I’ve repeatedly ordered, the slight variation in taste has always been excellent.

A basket of bread is set down at first with a bowl of herb spiced green and black olives. I would highly recommend ordering the rocca and zaatar salad, a very acidic dressing of lemon and zaatar make it a palate teaser (LE 18), the taboula salad (LE 21) seems to be spiced with something slightly sweet, perhaps cinnamon, and thus the combination of peppery rocca leaves, lemon and cinnamon all make for a good meal starter.

The eggplant makdous (LE 25) is served in a mason jar, and the smallest baby eggplants I’ve ever seen are pickled in oil, chili and stuffed with almonds. Both savory and sweet, they can add some flavor to anything else you order.

The hot mezzehs are plentiful on the menu. The fokharit jebneh mhammara (LE 24) is a novelty: salty cheese cooked in a clay dish with tomatoes, parsley, thyme and olive oil, the dish comes down with the cheese boiling and scent of herbs wafting. As each mezzeh comes down, the meal experience feels more like Spanish tappas: exciting tasty niblits spiced and cooked so deliciously. The meal becomes about sharing and passing around each dish, certainly what’s missing now is a glass of Lebanese arak, a licorice liquor.

The hummus and kawarmma (LE 29) is good but a possible pass next meal, the hummus isn’t creamy enough nor are the small flecks of meat on top a substantial addition to the hummus. The fatayer spinach (LE 28) are definitely worth an order: the spinach is encased in a pastry shell, spiced with sumac the spinach is both pungent in smell and beautifully sweetened by the sumac.

The grilled halloumi (LE 21) is doused with some combination dressing as opposed to just being served right off the grill and for that, we are grateful. A dressing keeps the halloumi cheese from getting rubbery too quickly.

Cancelling your order of mains at this point is suggested, there won’t be any space for it and the mezzehs are too fantastic to ignore for a plate of grilled meat or sandwiches. Enjoy the batates makliye (LE 22), French fries are dressed in nothing but garlic and herbs, and I would recommend them over the batates harra (LE 26) which were potatoes swimming in garlic, coriander and lemon. Usually spicy elsewhere, this was one variation on a dish that I didn’t particularly enjoy. The potatoes were soggy and the lemon dressing was too generous, masking the sweetness of a well fried potato.

The sojouk (LE 35), an Arabic sausage, is cooked in spicy tomato sauce and of the various types of sausages sampled on each visit, this was the crowd pleaser. Other sausage mezzehs cooked in butter, lemon or pomegranate sauce were basic in taste.

Dessert at Zeitouna tells me the restaurant is attempting to make a mark on the dining scene here: osmalieh (LE 25) is a kunafa stuffed with light cream and dressed in a rosewater flavored sugar syrup. Fluffy and light, a delicate balance of flavors of cream and florals is at play, as is the combination of textures of the kunafa and cream.

The highlight of Zeitouna is their halawa flavored ice cream (LE 23), three scoops of it are served with a small chunk of halawa on top and the sesame sweetness of the ice cream is beyond description. Neither too creamy nor too light, the ice cream delivers the taste of halawa in a novel way. It’s this creativity by Zeitouna that I appreciate and that’s different to other Lebanese restaurants in town.

There are some small glitches here and there, service is still being perfected but the waiting staff’s courteous demeanor is appreciated and the quality of the meal makes you forget.

When ordering the check, ask for a café blanc (LE 10), a Lebanese alcohol free digestif of hot water flavored with rose and citrus peel, a good drink to finish your meal with.



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