Hidden Lebanese gem caters to an exotic palate any time of the day
In case you’ve never made my acquaintance, I should seize this opportunity to advise you that I love Lebanese breakfast (which, to be honest, is usually more like brunch by the time I get around to it). Make no mistake: I love bacon and eggs, toast and hashbrowns, but I also love flatbread toasted with thyme, sesame seeds and olive oil. I love fava beans with onions, tomatoes and lemon, garlicky yogurt with chickpeas and toasted pita, soft cheese with olives and mint grilled in sauj bread, with a big plate of veggies and turnip pickles on the side.
So when a trusted dining out cohort told me about a place called Zar Zor and its Iraqi breakfast menu, I was instantly excited to experience novel variants on what I understood Arabs to eat in the morning.
Zar Zor boasts right on its awning: Mesopotamian flavours. How can you drive by that and not want to find out what flavours come from Mesopotamia? Chances are you wouldn’t normally drive by at all, given its location on a quiet residential street. But this is the very essence of the neighbourhood strip mall gem.
Just to be clear, Zar Zor fits the designation. It’s interior is not just brand new, but modern and handsome in its humble way. Framed Middle Eastern art and contemporary Arab music—plus a big honkin’ screen playing lifestyle porn-y Lebanese pop videos—add a hint of ethnic atmosphere. The spotless bathroom smells like a freshly unwrapped stick of chewing gum. And, oh, the food.
My co-diners and I are seated by the big front window and passed heavy menus. We’re the first and only customers of the day, and we’re hungry. The server is a bit abashed taking our beverage order—laban (if you consider yogurt a beverage), tart tamarind juice and a pot of Arabic coffee redolent of cardamom—and clearly shy about her English, which sounded entirely solid to me. One co-diner who had lived in the Middle East for a few years spoke a few words of Arabic politeness, and that helped break the ice.
Once we had negotiated a shared repast for five, our food arrived in a steady and orderly procession, starting with a complimentary bowl of lentil soup. Hummus and baba ganoush and housemade flatbread—somewhere between pita and chapatti—were next up. The creamy baba ganoush, flecked with parsley and dotted with whole green olives, achieved acclaim alongside the entirely adequate hummus. I was personally less taken with the mosabaha ($5.95), a warm bowl of chickpeas mixed with yogurt, lemon juice and tahini, which was a little anonymous.
Next came the items from the Mesopotamian Breakfast section of the menu, and they did not disappoint. In fact, without sideplates we just pawed at the food with fresh-torn bread—it was a little unseemly on our part.
The Chelefry platter ($10.95) certainly expanded my idea of breakfast food, comprising chunks of stewed beef, roasted potato, green pepper and tomato in an aromatic tomato sauce, but I wanted the whole plate to myself. The Makhlama platter ($10.95) mixed up seasoned ground beef with eggs, tomatoes and onions. Both plates exemplified the wonders of baharat, a spice blend with a backbone of cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and allspice though its constituent parts are tricky to discern as it morphs alongside the other flavours in the dish.
Unbelievably, we still had more food—a lot more food. The Mix Mashawi ($16.95) presented three different kebabs (chicken, beef, kafta) over a mountain of rice with saffron and a delicious veg-bejeweled pilaf. The charbroiled chicken was insanely tender and deeply imbued with lemon and garlic, but the beef and beef-lamb mince skewers were scarcely less impressive. With a fattoush salad, it would easily make a meal for two.
Even though we were bursting, we couldn’t resist the complimentary kabba halab set before us—a $9.95 value—and though I definitely didn’t need any more food, I was glad not to miss the fried rice-flour croquette filled with minced seasoned beef.
This impressive feast came to under $15 per person, before tip. The table was unanimous: Mesopotamian breakfast is now something we want to have on a recurring basis. And we look forward to Zar Zor initiating me into the wonders of Mesopotamian supper as well.