Deep Ellum restaurants follow an established script. Create a trendy space with exposed wooden rafters and a patio; pump in energetic or obnoxious dance music; serve original cocktails from a well-appointed bar; offer “sharing plate” bar bites to pair with the drinks; then add a crowd of young people who look ready to party.
The neighborhood’s most exciting new restaurant, Zatar Lebanese Tapas, is a joy because of the ways that it rewrites that formula.
Zatar’s new energy can be felt from any table in the house. It can be felt in a cocktail containing Metaxa, a Greek liqueur, along with rose water, oregano and zatar, the restaurant’s namesake spice mix. A well-made sour with arak and chili powder has the same rebellious feel. Lebanese wines are featured, including a fine red blend called Ixsir Altitudes which is great value at $40. These are just three examples of a drinks list that shows a deep engagement with Middle Eastern culinary tradition.
The crowd is different, too. On my first visit, the two tables on either side speak Arabic with each other and with Zatar General Manager Marc Mansour. As the night grows late, patio tables fill up with groups ordering cocktails and hookah.
And the food represents a big step forward for Dallas dining, too. For this city, for too long, “Mediterranean” food — the euphemism restaurateurs use to avoid racist sentiment — meant a simple diet of gyros, hummus and lukewarm lunch buffets. Zatar Lebanese Tapas ditches the word “Mediterranean” and presents a menu of foods which are difficult, or impossible, to find elsewhere in North Texas.
The Deep Ellum script obliges Zatar to offer a cheese board ($14), but its choices are Lebanese: grilled halloumi, kashkaval (which Mansour describes as “like manchego, but less nutty, less sharp”) and yogurt-based labneh. Baba ghannouj, or roasted eggplant dip ($8), is fairly mild-mannered; muhammara, a roasted red bell pepper dip with pureed walnuts and pomegranate molasses, is a scene-stealer, savory-tart-sweet with a hint of crunch ($8).
The menu describes sambousek ($7) as “empanadas filled with spiced minced beef,” which is true, but it’s odd to think of this traditional ground beef pastry, with a thin and flaky crust, as an empanada. Moujadara ($9) are racquetball-sized balls of mashed lentils and caramelized onions, deep-fried. They’re a little dry alone, but a yogurt sauce is there to help.
Fried cauliflower ($8) comes perfectly cooked and with a good dose of parsley; there’s a wedge of lemon on the side for squeezing, but the kitchen has already added a little too much. Better are cheese cigars ($7). The name might be silly, but it’s translated correctly; my Turkish family raised me on “cigar” pastries of paper-thin dough stuffed with feta and parsley. Zatar mixes feta with more meltable akawi before lightly frying the pastries. It’s an addicting snack, one that transports me back to childhood, and will transport many a Dallasite to cheesy bliss.
The main courses, too, offer happy twists on the familiar. Nothing exemplifies this better than moussaka ($16), which Greek restaurants have trained us to think of as a sort of eggplant lasagna. At Zatar, the moussaka is a hearty, wintry vegetable stew of eggplant, tomatoes and chickpeas. With no béchamel or ground meat in sight, this is still great comfort food, and begs to be sopped up with pita.
Take note of the moghrabiyeh ($22). The menu lists this as roasted chicken with a side of couscous, but in fact the word “moghrabiyeh” denotes both the finished dish and, more specifically, the type of couscous. These enormous grains, which almost look like miniature chickpeas and have a delightfully springy texture, are more memorable in their spiced-but-not-spicy preparation than is the bone-in chicken breast alongside.
Fans of the meat-and-grain combo will be even happier with the upside-down lamb pilaf ($24), a recipe that comes from co-owner C.K. Khoury’s mother. Mansour says that, since such traditional recipes are rarely written down, procuring it was a challenge: “He sat next to her and made her cook it, and they measured out the ingredients until they had it right.”
This mixture of rice, tender slow-cooked lamb morsels, pine nuts and almonds more or less vanished from my table, devoured before we could think critically about it. That’s a testament to the comforting, convivial environment Zatar creates when its food is at its best. This is an outstanding hangout spot in a neighborhood bursting with them.
The kitchen could use a few tweaks here and there, like the cauliflower’s lemon, but no flaw is more basic than the pita bread. On one visit, it was soft, flavorful, the perfect vehicle for dips; but since Zatar’s bread is rather thin, it’s prone to occasional overbaking. Made to order, the pitas aren’t as consistent as I’d like, and neither are the house “pies,” ultra-thin-crust Lebanese pizzas. A mozzarella-and-akawi cheese pizza we sampled ($7) had a crust that, for all its thinness, somehow wasn’t crisp. (And it would be killer with some black and white sesame seeds.)
Any bad memories of dinner here are unlikely to survive the onslaught of arak cocktails and dessert. For a traditional Middle Eastern dessert, try knefeh ($7), a cheesy staple in which a layer of molten cheese is covered in a semolina flour crust, then doused in syrup. It’s not the sweetest of treats, but it’s curiously addicting. (The version served at Turkish restaurants, with shredded wheat instead of semolina, sounds even weirder but tastes even better.)
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But the plate which made me a lifelong fan of Zatar Lebanese Tapas — even more so than the richly spiced moussaka, even more so than the brilliant lamb pilaf and, yes, even more so than the crisp fried cheese cigars — is the chocolate halva cake ($12), a mammoth slice of cake which layers chocolate mousse with halva, the sugary sesame paste beloved by half the planet. The result is so moist and so decadent that it haunts my dreams.
On Saturday nights the restaurant bustles nonstop, first with dinner crowds and then with hookah enthusiasts. Deep Ellum is quickly learning to love its new hot spot, and with good reason. Zatar has erased the neighborhood’s cliches, adding Lebanese energy to the formula of cocktails, sharing plates and awesome cakes.
And there’s another thing that separates Zatar Lebanese Tapas with the earnest “chef-driven” “concept” restaurants that are plaguing Dallas with Berkshire pork and overpriced grits. Eating here isn’t dour or even serious. It’s pure fun.
Zatar Lebanese Tapas, 2825 Commerce Street, zatardallas.com. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.