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.