Au Za’atar (188 Avenue A, 212-254-5660) exudes the atmosphere of a laid-back French bistro: The ambiance is warm and inviting, the restaurant outfitted wall to wall with rustic woods, the bar lined with bottles of various wines and beers. But this is not a French bistro, at least not exactly, and the menu reflects something a little different from what you might expect.
The cuisine at Au Za’atar — as the restaurant’s tagline reads — is Arabian French. And while that might sound like fusion fare, Au Za’atar’s menu is “absolutely traditional and not Americanized,” owner and head chef Tarik Fallous says.
Au Za’atar’s cuisine hails from the Levant region, an area that encompasses seven countries and regions, including Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, southern Turkey, and Lebanon, where Fallous is from; Au Za’atar’s menu also comprises culinary influences from Tunisia and Morocco.
The menu is “inspired by Lebanese [cuisine] because my mother is Lebanese,” says Fallous. “So basically whatever is on the menu is what my mother knows how to make. It’s all her recipes. She also knows how to make Tunisian [food] because she lived in Tunisia.” Lebanese fare has a healthy French streak because the country was colonized by the French, as were many other countries in the region.
“Nothing is infused. The ingredients that are used [in our restaurant are also used] at home,” says Fallous.
And there are many vegetarian options here. Ordering from the vegetarian mezze portion of the menu might be your best route; it allows you to try a bit of everything.
Consider the arnabeet mekle ($8): It features crunchy fried cauliflower marinated in Lebanese herbs and spices, with the dish absolutely sour, but not in an unpleasant way — it’s just a little startling, and definitely worth sampling. Or have the fatteh al-betenjane ($13), eggplant topped with toasted pita bread and smothered with tangy garlic yogurt sauce and sautéed pine nuts.
Halloum ($11) is a type of cheese that originates from Cyprus and is typically grilled or fried. Fallous serves his halloum grilled; it’s thick and chewy and salty, and it’s tempered and enhanced by lightly marinated tomatoes and cucumbers.
And don’t miss the fatayi ($7) — small, tangy spinach pies — and the rice- and tomato-stuffed vegetables ($13-$21).
More:Vegetarian and Vegan