You would think a place with the food diversity in the Bay Area would include a decent representation of the Israeli diet, but that is not quite the case. While many of the staple ingredients in Levantine food are somewhat readily available, the quality just isn’t there. Watery tahini, lumpy hummus, brown za’atar (which I still can’t wrap my head around)....the list goes on. Though it’s cute that Berkeley Bowl stocks Turkit coffee and Bamba, the Achla hummus has to find its way onto their shelves. In the meantime, we’ll be stuck with grounds in our teeth and peanut butter coated mouths.
I promised my father I would take him to dinner, and so the usual shenanigans occurred. Which restaurant doesn’t suck, is semi-decently priced, has vegetarian options, has keto options, and dresses their servers in penguin suits. But when I came across a restaurant called Zaytoon, which is my mother’s maiden name, we both agreed it had to be given a chance
And so we were sat down and quickly fell in love with the place. The fantastical shade of petroleum blue on the walls and the gold stenciled tree that spoke Arabic were tasteful and sexy, and the cute mason jars of olives and Israeli couscous were a reminder of the local market around the corner from my home. At that moment, I started to miss the sounds of “afarsek! Eser shekel afarsek!” (peaches-10 shekels peaches!) that is just now bellowing from the smoke filled mouths of the rambunctious produce salesmen.
Erika the lovely waitress came back and I returned from my stone fruit musings. I told my story about having returned to the Bay Area after four years in Israel and she listened willingly, which I saw as a win. After being informed that I planned on writing about the establishment, she brought over the restaurant manager, who was good enough to spend a few minutes talking to me though the dining room was packed. He enthusiastically told me all about the owner who had come from Jerusalem and cooked his mother’s Palestinian recipes. The issue of sourcing ingredients came up, and the response was surprising: at Zaytoon, they actually import their spices from the Machane Yehuda market in the center of Jerusalem! This fact brought back both recent and far off memories of trolling through there in awe of the bounty that this tiny country had to offer. Watermelons burst with sunshine among pitas that would make excellent lounging pillows, but best of all was the knafeh. This traditional Levantine dessert was an object of worship in Israel, particularly among Tel Avivians. A magical concoction composed of melted cheese topped with pistachios and crispy shredded filo pastry finished with an orange blossom syrup, it is god’s gift to gluttons. But more about that later.
Upon close inspection, the menu was absolutely flawless. A true representation of the cuisine of Palestine, the selection ranged from classic hummus (a must!) to braised lamb shanks in yogurt sauce. But what caught my eye was the grambi and scallop starter. I’m a sucker for seafood, and a well-prepared scallop is such a rarity in Israel. My father ordered the mezze platter, which featured a couple of eggplant-based salads, tabouleh, hummus, and falafel balls. He was instantly mocked for his bravery. Having traveled to Israel a few times, he is reasonably well schooled in what constitutes good Middle Eastern eats, though is much less of an ass about it than I am.
Well. All mockery and bravery instantly vanished as our food arrived a perfect ten minutes later. The mezze was generously portioned and looked shockingly similar to the dishes served in east Jerusalem restaurants. My shrimp and scallops were plated simply, all the better to understand just how well everything was prepared. The shrimp were plump and cooked beautifully, but that scallop! I could have gorged on them all day and not gotten sick of them. Seared until just crisp on the outside and still raw in the middle, seasoned immaculately with a few grains of salt and sumac, they were an inspiration to chefs all around. My father laughed at the huge smile on my face and dug into his plate. I tried a small bit of hummus and was pleasantly surprised: this was the best I’d had outside of Israel.
Our food continued to arrive with immaculate coordination. The chunks of lamb were grilled to a perfect medium, and I found myself dreaming about our anniversary weekend spent in the Golan Heights wrestling shashlik off of skewers. The mint and jalapeño sauce was an unusual, though welcome, accompaniment. Regardless, it was well balanced and married nicely with the lamb and grilled vegetables piled high on my plate. My father’s mujadara was technically on point and the best representation of Palestinian home cooking that the chef had to offer.
The expert staff checked on us regularly and offered to bring us the dessert menu. I joked with Erika the waitress that if they had knafeh I’d break my diet. She laughed and confirmed that they did indeed serve knafeh, and my jaw dropped. Crap. Now we were stuck. If it was subpar I’d be upset at being served lousy food, and if it was good I’d cry for that first time I’d had the authentic stuff after a challenging hike near Nazareth. But it was good. So ridiculously good that I forgave the fact that they didn’t use the cheese from Nablus and took exactly one and a half bites.
Zaytoon is precisely what I wanted it to be and so much more. It took me back to lounging on terraces in Tel Aviv sweating profusely in a cotton dress and flip-flops licking tahini off my fingers. But more importantly, it brought to light the fact that a mother’s love never ceases to exist, and that food is the perfect vessel for it to travel in.