Asbury Park Press 04/13/07
BY ANDREA CLURFELD
The second I taste the fava beans, made aromatic and seductive by the
warmth of garlic and aroused by a rush of fresh lemon and abundant
peppery olive oil, I am glad I have abandoned any sense of propriety
and ordered a rash of little dishes at Zaitooni Deli.
These beans, at once earthy and creamy, so indicative of rustic
Mediterranean/Middle Eastern home cookery, tell me someone with an
authoritative hand is in charge of the food at this sliver of an eatery
in Red Bank. My friend and I have pushed our way through the rain to
get here, and I catch the scent of why she has encouraged me to come
the second we blow past the doorway: It's well-seasoned inside
Zaitooni, a fragrant interlude away from the ebb and flow of edgy to
the welcome hearth of simple, time-honored peasant fare.
I feel at home, reincarnation of a peasant wife I'm certain that I am.
Behind a counter, there's this and that — little
phyllo-wrapped pies, spreads and salads, many things that come from the
lands in and around the birthplace of civilization. Order what you
wish, then settle in at one of the handful of tables clustered around
the pleasant storefront, and prepare to be transported.
The baba ghanouj ($7), the food by which I judge all things Middle
Eastern, is sublime, a smoky mash of eggplant accented with just a spot
of tahini, lemon and garlic. The hummus ($7) is its equal, a whirl of
chickpeas enhanced by lemon, tahini and garlic. And those favas ($6)
— oh, the favas thrill me; if I could have a small bowl of
them every day, I'd ask for nothing more.
But I know I am eating authentic, religiously authentic, when the
tabbouleh ($6) is set before me: It's about parsley, not the bulgur
concoction the classic has become in America, and this verdant salad of
chopped flat-leaf parsley and some mint studded with snips of onions,
tomatoes and cracked wheat is exuberantly dressed with lemon juice and
olive oil. Simple and brilliant — and a respectful nod to the
way a dish was meant to be.
Now, if you know Middle Eastern, particularly the foods of Lebanon,
where the folks behind Zaitooni are from, you'll be wondering, "Ah, all
well and good, but can these people do kibbee?" Yes, yes, they can.
You'll be asked if you want the spice-infused mix of ground meat,
bulgur, onions and pine nuts in patty or round form; I urge you to go
for those torpedo-shape kibbee ($7), for they are traditional
— and irresistible. After kibbee, a hamburger is just a
hamburger. P.S. You like prosciutto? Well, order basturma ($7),
Armenia's version of cured, then sliced meat. It's far more intensely
seasoned and best just popped into your mouth, alone and unadorned.
Though you can have your basturma tucked into a pita, too. We consider
this, but opt instead for a gyro ($6), and find it deftly accomplished:
Tender slices of marinated lamb and beef entwine in a pocket lined with
subtle, yet invigorating tahini sauce. A terrific rendition of a
I'm pining for the stuffed grape leaves, but feel I should try a couple
of Zaitooni's savory pastries. The lahembajeen ($3), layered with
heat-licked ground lamb, is a kick, a most un-shy morsel, while the
manoushi pie with cheese ($3) gets a lift from cameo appearances by
mint, olives and tomatoes. If I was having a party, I'd order a sheet
of this cheese pie, sliced and served as my hors d'oeuvre.
Party — what a delightful thought. The presence of the
singularly sensational Zaitooni Deli in our midst warrants an all-out