Before I begin, I must make a confession. I love Palestinian cuisine. In fact, Palestinian cuisine is my specialty. I learned to cook with my Palestinian auntie (grandmother in Arabic) and love the culture, cuisine and attitude towards food that runs through Palestine. Cut me and I bleed tahini. So a visit to Za’atar Bake, a Palestinian restaurant on Cowley Road, was essentially a rite of passage. Screening Middle Eastern restaurants is vital. I need to know where I can get my next Fattoush patch.
Za’atar Bake offers a plethora of choices for the discerning seeker. Entering the restaurant, you encounter Palestine: baklava and various syrup-soaked sweets are proudly displayed, Arabic music plays, and punters recline on Bedouin-style cushions. My guest and I were ushered to a table where we had front row seats to watch the magic of the huge stone oven at work. In and out of the oven came plate-sized pitas, stately manakeesh (flatbreads) and entrees, each encased in traditional clay pots. It was a joy to watch the chefs at work, deftly maneuvering the contents of the oven with a gigantic wooden pole. Now just to figure out what I wanted from this oven.
I lied. I already knew exactly what I wanted. Although the main dishes are endlessly tempting, I longed for the mezze: the quintessential Palestinian meal. Whether it’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner, mezze is always the answer. We ordered falafel, za’atar and spinach manakeesh, hummus, baba ganoush (burnt eggplant dip) and the salad of the day, which to my delight turned out to be Fattoush (salad of bread). To accompany this feast, we each tried the homemade mint lemonade. I was lightly frosted, like a raita, but it was wonderfully refreshing and provided a vital counterpoint to the richness of the meal.
Screening Middle Eastern restaurants is vital.
I need to know where I can get my next Fattoush patch.
Unbeknownst to us, hummus and baba ganoush also came with enormus pita. So we significantly over-ordered. But, ending up with an extra is never a problem for a college student, so coming home with a bag of pita bread under my arm made me particularly smug. The meze itself was amazing. First came the manakeesh (flatbreads). Each dish came as it was ready, straight out of the oven in front of and on our table. I watched the loaves come in and out, glistening with heat and drenched in olive oil. The manakeesh za’atar was thin, perfectly done, with just enough bite to be satisfying, but not too much to border on pizza territory. The spinach manakeesh was like the traditional spinach parcels my Tata delivers to me as a Red Cross helper in week five. At Za’atar Bake, it was speckled with sesame and nigella seeds and drizzled with sour pomegranate molasses. The spinach itself was tangy and piping hot, but balanced out by the chewy batter. It is out of place to say that it did not last long.
Next come hummus and baba ganoush, causing a pita-related epiphany. Nevertheless, the dives were fascinating. The hummus was not what I expected. It was presented in a ball, decorated with cumin, fresh parsley and of course pickled radishes. It was hearty hummus, not quite the silky smooth spread I had imagined. As my Tata always criticizes my hummus, it could have been done with more lemon and garlic. But my ability to make my own hummus in Oxford sucks, so beggars can’t choose. The apprehensions of hummus were largely compensated by the baba ganoush, of which we ordered the spicy version. Served in a brown earthen pot, this dish epitomized Palestinian cuisine. Bathed in olive oil and sumac, shoveled in pita, the slight heat of chilli intertwined with the creamy burnt eggplant, it was a revelation. I cleaned the dish very carefully with fingers and pita. The epitome of eating mezze.
The spinach manakeesh was like the traditional spinach parcels my Tata delivers to me as a Red Cross helper in week five. At Za’atar Bake, it was speckled with sesame and nigella seeds and drizzled with sour pomegranate molasses.
Needless to say the Fattoush and falafel were of similar quality. The Fattoush lettuce was brilliantly crisp: none of that wilted, dull nonsense. The tomatoes were soft and chewy, unlike the acidity of the sumac and molasses. The eponymous bread was crispy and not too greasy: a common fault with Fattoush. A brilliantly executed dish. The falafels were hot and fresh. You could smell the parsley and chickpeas emanating from the bowl, and the accompanying lettuce, pickles and tahini completed the dish.
Overall, Za’atar Bake was a smash hit. It’s a short hike out of downtown, but you’ll be handsomely rewarded. It would be a brilliant introduction to Palestinian cuisine for the complete beginner, and aspires to reach the lofty heights of the learned critic.
Back home with pita in tow, how could I not love this place? After all, cut me: Am I not bleeding tahini?
Image credits: Béatrice Munro
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