Grilled Calamari; Boreka: Filo Pastry Stuffed with Sautéed Leeks, Herbs, Greens and French Feta; Kebab Feast for Two
Occupation: Product Designer
Favorite Restaurant: Zatar
Reviewed Zatar: Saturday, August 26, 2006
It was a little hard to critique my own restaurant of choice. I sort of felt that if I didn’t find some fault I might come across as biased. So, instead of going with my husband, another diehard Zatar fan, this time I went with two friends who had never tried Zatar. I hate to say it, but really the only thing we can find wrong with this place is their location. I personally do not enjoy going to that area of Berkeley (though their food is worth it), and I imagine that they might attract local clientele that doesn’t appreciate the quality of the food.
Regardless of the location, and the fact that I live in Oakland, I have been eating at this restaurant for more than eight years. There is a small circle of us regulars who have been befriended by the husband and wife owners, and we are privileged to be invited to their semi-annual garden and harvest parties. I have seen firsthand how hard these people work to maintain their half-acre organic garden and an overall unbelievably high standard of organic, sustainable cuisine for the restaurant. The meal I had on the night I visited was full of fresh summer vegetables and herbs from this garden.
One of the small details about our meal, which my friends were surprised by, is that we discovered three different varieties of basil as accent flavors throughout our dishes. (We later learned that the owners have thirteen different varieties of basil in their garden.) This is the type of detail that makes the restaurant so special in my opinion. We started with a hot filo pastry filled with herbs, dark greens, French feta, and leeks, which was crisp, cheesy, and fragrant, but not so cheesy that the hearty greens weren’t evident. I love this dish at their place when they have it, because often I find filo pastries heavy on the dough and oily, but theirs never is. Then we had my favorite starter: grilled haloumi cheese over grilled bread with whatever fresh vegetables are from their garden. This time it was summer squash and heirloom tomatoes, with, of course, basil. Finally, we had a tuna carpaccio with Meyer lemon, olive oil, capers, sea salt, and lemon basil. Another small detail that I love about Zatar is their high-quality extra virgin olive oil, which is always dark green and fragrant. This oil was used perfectly in all the starters and my subsequent salad (with baby lettuces from the garden) and makes for a unique flavor that I always associate with Zatar.
Needless to say, my friends loved everything, including their entrees, (Alaskan Halibut with a lemon-sesame sauce and grilled leg of lamb — both with grilled vegetables from the garden) and the prompt, friendly, unpretentious service. The ambience was very cozy that night with all the candles lit and their beautiful collection of Mediterranean terracotta plates adorning the wall next to us. All of these were hand-selected by the owners on different travels of theirs. Lastly, we were stunned by the wine, which was an organic 1997 Barbaresco of DOCG definition from Piedmonte, at only $42 a bottle. What a find! I cannot imagine any high-end restaurant in San Francisco offering that wine for under $50. In fact, any wine lover would undoubtedly notice that not only is the wine menu chosen with care to specifically complement their food, but the prices are extremely fair for the quality.
All in all, once again, Zatar proved to be an excellent meal and a great destination restaurant. I think Zatar is a rare, underappreciated gem. This is the type of place that one would love to stumble across while traveling and have stories to tell upon the return home of the amazing little place they barely stumbled across in whatever distant city. But it’s in our own backyard.
Occupation: Marketing Director
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Little Star Pizza
Reviewed Zatar: Friday, August 25, 2006
Zatar is one of those restaurants that should be on every foodie’s list to try at least once. It’s Mediterranean in theme, but just as importantly, it’s all about naturally-raised meats and organic fruits and vegetables. The husband and wife team behind the place pour their heart into the restaurant, and it shows. I mean, many of the vegetables they offer are literally grown and harvested in their own garden!
Onto the meal: We started with a flat bread sampler, which is the best way to try all the spreads. I really like the Mohamara, which is made up of pomegranate and roasted peppers. The crostini with grilled haloumi and summer squash was also worth trying, but I believe the menu changes from time to time. On another visit, I’ll be sure to try the warm lamb dolmas, which are making me salivate as I write this!
For the main course, we tried the Kebab Feast For Two, which is a fun way to sample a good many of Zatar’s main courses. Truly a feast, you’ll get both chicken and Niman Ranch lamb kefta kebabs, not to mention a succulent serving of their boneless leg of lamb. The whole dish is served over light and fluffy basmati rice and vegetables that are grown in the owners’ own garden!
The wine list is somewhat eclectic, but that’s to be expected when all the selections are organic.
If I had to point out one flaw in this cozy and intimate restaurant, it’s that dinner for two (which included one bottle of wine, plus another two glasses, but no dessert), was $140 for two people, including tax and tip.
When I mentioned I was going to Zatar to another friend, he mentioned that sometimes the service can be slow or almost indifferent, but that the food makes it worth it. Well, Lady Luck was on our side when we dined. As it turned out, the regular waitress was sick, so the wife/owner served us. She was gracious, and you could sense her love for the food she was serving. She made us feel like we were practically eating at her home. So maybe we lucked out, but I guess I’ll have to go back again to find out!
Occupation: Film Festival Volunteer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Vignette
Reviewed Zatar: Friday, August 25, 2006
I would have guessed that “Zatar” was a place or someone’s name. But instead, it’s a common mixture of herbs and spices, when soaked with olive oil, is consumed with bread.
The décor is Turkish, Greek, and Southern Italian, and indeed, the food is described as “eclectic Mediterranean.” The owners, an Iraqi chef and his American wife, grow all their produce in their Oakland home’s backyard. The latest issue of Organic Gardening Magazine has a feature article on this enterprising couple and their restaurant.
The food is not only organic, but creatively prepared. The wine list was a bit pricey for a little neighborhood restaurant. Most were over $30 and many over $40. Just two under $30, which isn’t fair to your basic proletariat diner.
The only annoyance came at the very end when our bill was presented and we had to pay with cash. At $84 a head, we had to turn pockets inside out, and purses upside down to scrape together the cash. That, plus the fact that all those frequent flyer miles don’t get counted when you pay cash!