Monday, February 19, 2018
Restaurants

Restaurant review: Zaytoon Grill brings solid food to St. Pete but could showcase even more Palestinian flair

ST. PETERSBURG

A few years ago, the London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi ignited what the New York Times' Julia Moskin called "Jerusalem fever." An Israeli, Ottolenghi co-wrote Jerusalem, and a previous cookbook called Plenty, with Sammi Tamimi, who is Palestinian. All politics aside, the two cookbooks explored the nexus of Arab and Jewish culinary traditions in a way that seemed all new and sexy. After a long waning of Americans' interest in Middle Eastern cuisines, we were fired up again about feta and kibbe, za'atar and sumac. We took a fresh look at Turkish, Syrian, Jordanian, Armenian, Israeli and Lebanese cuisines, reveling in the exotic flavors of nearby Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

There's plenty of conflict about who invented hummus or falafel (Egyptians, Palestinians and Lebanese all vociferously claim ownership of the latter) and where these dishes reach their dazzling effulgence, but the truth is there are common dishes and flavors to many of the cuisines found along the southern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Colonization, immigration, cultural appropriation and outright stealing have meant that real regional or national differences can be subtle.

Waleed Khalel, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, emigrated to the United States in 1982. Trained as an electrical engineer, he had pizzerias in New York, owned a strip mall in Winter Haven and had other businesses in St. Louis, Mo., before he and his wife, Mary, followed their son Mohammed here to Pinellas County. On Khalel's bucket list: Open a Mediterranean restaurant, something that purveys classic street foods, nothing too huge or ambitious.

In August, his bucket list got shorter with the debut of Zaytoon Grill, at the edge of the increasingly packed Edge District. It is takeout for the most part, the order-at-the-counter shop not equipped with a ton of tables or the kind of atmosphere that makes for lingering. Zaytoon is the Arabic word for olive, a longtime symbol of Palestinian steadfastness. Perhaps because of things like Dave Eggers' book Zeitoun, the word has become more well known: Last year I reviewed Zaytoun Mediterranean Grill, a Syrian restaurant in New Tampa.

Khalel's restaurant is unrelated. It is Palestinian food, which tends to be a little spicier and zingier than the Israeli counterparts. With not a huge menu, it focuses on the basics. The sampler ($7.99) is where to start, a scoop of tahini-enriched baba ghanoush, lemony hummus, a chunky foule (puree of fava beans with lemon and roasted garlic that almost reads like lentils) and a couple of crisp-edged, fluffy-centered chickpea falafel. The array comes with wedges of warm pita made by Holy City Bakery near Busch Gardens in Tampa. An easy dish to share among friends, it frees you up to explore more as an entree.

I would suggest going for platters instead of sandwiches were it not for one thing: The house-cut fries that accompany sandwiches are lightly dusted with sumac, which imparts a flavor somewhere between lemon and exotic tea. They're solid fries with a slightly magical twist. Platters, on the other hand, are bedded down on more workhorse white basmati, the best of them a shawarma chicken version that brings marinated shreds of chicken along with cuke, tomato and red onion, with a tangy tahini dressing ($8.99).

Kibbe and kefta are two Middle Eastern burger alternatives that I often find myself craving. Zaytoon's kibbe ($4.99), more of an appetizer, brings patties of ground beef flavored with garlic, onion, pine nuts and parsley, with textural interest provided by cracked wheat. The restaurant serves its kefta ($6.99) — grilled beef patties goosed up with spices, onion and parsley — as a wrap mated with hummus, cuke, tomato, lettuce and pickle.

Desserts at Zaytoon are brought in from Hellas in Tarpon Springs (baklava and kataifi), and beverages are limited to a small case of sodas, waters and teas. As the restaurant settles in, I hope Khalel and his family will feel comfortable sharing with customers what is special and different about Palestinian food. We have a fair amount of hummus in these parts, but it would be exciting to see traditional dishes like maqloubeh (an upside-down dish of rice, eggplant and meat) or musakhan (a taboon bread topped with roasted chicken spiced with sumac and allspice). Here's to hoping things like that are still on his bucket list.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

   
Comments
Review: Platt Street Borough is casual Tampa dining with high standards

Review: Platt Street Borough is casual Tampa dining with high standards

TAMPAIt wasn’t that long ago that Platt Street was a bit of a conundrum for restaurateurs: Not exactly downtown, without the dense auto traffic of Kennedy, and far enough off the South Howard main drag that it didn’t entirely qualify as part of SoHo....
Published: 02/19/18
The Reading Room’s Lauren Macellaro and Columbia’s Richard Gonzmart are James Beard semifinalists

The Reading Room’s Lauren Macellaro and Columbia’s Richard Gonzmart are James Beard semifinalists

It’s almost a sick joke. On the morning after Valentine’s Day, the second-busiest restaurant day of the year, chefs all over the country are hauling themselves out of bed early to find out: Did I make it onto this year’s James Beard Foundation list o...
Published: 02/15/18
Blind Tiger Coffee Roasters opens in South Tampa, plus learn how to roll sushi at Kelp

Blind Tiger Coffee Roasters opens in South Tampa, plus learn how to roll sushi at Kelp

LOVE STUNT: SUSHI ROLLSIf you dropped the ball Wednesday and did bubkes for your sweetie, here’s a tip: Through Sunday at Kelp in South Tampa, couples can dive into a reservations-only chef-led art of sushi rolling class that comes with bottomless sa...
Published: 02/14/18
Out of time this Valentine's Day? Five ways to still have a romantic meal

Out of time this Valentine's Day? Five ways to still have a romantic meal

Valentine’s Day is Wednesday, and that means your odds of scoring a reservation at a popular restaurant are roughly equal to the odds of you opening your own restaurant in time for dinner. Thinking about showing up somewhere with no reservatio...
Published: 02/13/18
Review: 2nd & Second will serve you 24/7 in St. Petersburg

Review: 2nd & Second will serve you 24/7 in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURGAn older couple sits at a booth, hunched over mugs of coffee, occasionally murmuring in a way that seems more soliloquy than conspiracy. Outside at a table, two travelers pay their tab, plates streaked with cold yolk. They ask for direc...
Published: 02/12/18
Review: Maybe the Lure can beat the odds at this unlucky South Tampa location

Review: Maybe the Lure can beat the odds at this unlucky South Tampa location

TAMPA - This will be my fourth review of restaurants in this space, all of them more or less favorable: Bistro Bleu (a sophisticated New American charmer), Marrakech (Yay! We have almost no Moroccan food here! Bring on the tagines!) and Catrinas Taco...
Published: 02/05/18
Here's what you can eat at the Armature Works' new Heights Public Market

Here's what you can eat at the Armature Works' new Heights Public Market

TAMPA — "This project will change the DNA of Tampa." Bold words from Ferdian Jap, co-owner of Zukku, one of 14 vendors who began selling their food and drink to the public Thursday at the anticipated Heights Public Market at the Armature Works...
Updated one month ago
Valentine’s Day ideas for Tampa Bay foodies: wine and chocolate, berry picking and more

Valentine’s Day ideas for Tampa Bay foodies: wine and chocolate, berry picking and more

PICKING: BERRY FASTLooking for something fun, yet competitive, to do with your sweetie in advance of Valentine’s Day? Wish Farms and Monte Package Co. are collaborating on the fifth annual Strawberry Picking Challenge this weekend.The main event Satu...
Published: 02/01/18
Updated: 02/07/18
A salute to Tampa Bay's Top 50 restaurants of the year

A salute to Tampa Bay's Top 50 restaurants of the year

Every year, I cull through thousands of words about the local restaurant scene from Times food critic Laura Reiley. I edit her weekly restaurant reviews, salivating over the best of them and making note when she leans over and says, "Oh yeah, you wou...
Updated one month ago
The list is here: Our 2018 edition of the Top 50 Restaurants of Tampa Bay

The list is here: Our 2018 edition of the Top 50 Restaurants of Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay’s Top 50 Restaurants has arrived, and so has the Tampa Bay food scene. The highly-anticipated annual list from food critic Laura Reiley contains some surprises this year, in restaurants that made it and ones that didn’t. Our foo...
Updated one month ago