*IMG_9925By Gary Nager

Sure, there are alotof decent Mediterranean and Greek restaurants in our area already, but I can assure you there is nothing in New Tampa or Wesley Chapel quite like the new Zaytoun Mediterranean Grill, located just north of the intersection of Cross Creek Blvd. and Morris Bridge Rd., in a new building adjacent to the Publix shopping center at that intersection (behind Dunkin’ Donuts).

Zaytoun, which means “olive tree” in Arabic, is the first truly upscale Mediterranean dining experience in our area. It is brightly decorated, but although the vibe is casual (with Middle Eastern music playing in the background), Zaytoun owner Bilal Saleh promises chef-created, authentic Mediterranean cuisine utilizing restaurant versions of his wife Abida’s recipes (including combinations of herbs and spices I know I’ve never tasted before). The Salehs, who have lived in New Tampa for several years, are originally from Damascus, Syria, and promise that literally everything on Zaytoun’s extensive menu is made on the premises, from the hummus to the pitas.

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“We don’t open up a bag of pitas and heat them up,” Bilal (an engineer turned entrepreneur) says proudly. “We make the dough and bake the pita bread — and all of our entrée pies and desserts — right in our custom-built oven (photo below). And, there are no freezers here. Everything we sell is made fresh here, using only the finest ingredients we can find.”

The oven itself was imported from Italy and built brick-by-brick to fit in Zaytoun’s kitchen. I can assure you that whether you crave a ground beef or spinach pie, the best fresh pitas you’ve ever tasted or any of Zaytoun’s truly delicious desserts, anything made in this oven will delight you. Bilal hired Manny, a chef from Syria who also has run kitchens in New York City and South Tampa, to recreate Abida’s recipes. Panos, Zaytoun’s lead chef now that the restaurant is open, is from Greece, but he worked with Chef Manny at the old Oregano’s on W. Kennedy Blvd.

On To The Food!

Although I’ve always loved lamb chops, a good gyro sandwich and Greek salads, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Middle Eastern cuisine. I now think that’s because I’ve never been anyplace like Zaytoun before.

For example, I’ve never really gotten caught up in the whole hummus phenomenon. Yes, I know it’s healthy for you (despite the fact it’s made with plenty of olive oil), I just never loved the flavor. I will say that Zaytoun’s hummus is the best and creamiest I’ve sampled (I can never eat store-bought hummus again), but I could eat a lot of the home-baked pita bread without it. I’d love to hear your opinion. 

Other “Mezze” (starters) on Zaytoun’s menu include flash-fried chick pea falafels, baba ghanouj (fire-roasted eggplant pureed with garlic, lemon and the same tahini sauce as the hummus), stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbeh (lean, minced beef) and a sample platter featuring salad, yogurt salad, tabbouleh, hummus, fried kibbeh and Muhammara (a flavorful dip of fresh, hot red peppers, walnuts and breadcrumbs).

The only salad on the menu I haven’t yet tried is the tabbouleh, but I’ve heard more than one patron at Zaytoun say it’s the best they’ve tried. I can, however, vouch for both the Arabic salad (romaine, diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice, mint and olive oil) and my favorite so far, the Fattoush salad (which features the same ingredients as the Arabic salad, but with a touch of pomegranate molasses and sumac mixed in the dressing, with toasted pita chips sprinkled on top). Both salads are totally yummy and light, healthy choices and you can even add chicken shawarma (see below) or kabob meat for just $3-$4. 

Zaytoun’s fresh pita bread sandwiches are all outstanding, too. I’ve yet to sample the popular falafel sandwich, but I can vouch for the chicken, beef and kufta kabob sandwiches, with all of those meats seared to perfection on an open flame grill (see below). My favorite sandwich by far, however, is the chicken shawarma, which may be the best I’ve ever tried. Cooked and shaved off a traditional Greek gyro “tower,” Zaytoun’s chicken shawarma combines cuts of white and dark meat sliced off the tower and grilled over the open flame for a truly unique taste. 

“I’ve never seen the recipe for the twelve herbs and spices used on the shawarma,” says Chef Panos. “Bilal and Abida just give me the spice mixture every day and we marinate the shawarma for 24 hours in those spices.”

All I can say is the shawarma is a must-try. And, although I only used a little of mine, I definitely enjoyed the special garlic sauce served on the side better than most Greek-style tzatziki sauces.

‘Delicious Meats Roasting On An Open Flame…’ 

Salads are great, but a natural meat eater like yours truly has got to have plenty of delicious animal protein choices and Zaytoun doesn’t disappoint when those Mediterranean spices come together with a variety of meats cooked to juicy perfection on an open-flame stone grill. 

My recommendation is for someone at your table to order the Zaytoun mixed grill, with grilled kufta (spiced ground beef), chicken and beef shish kabobs, served with fresh, charred veggies (the charred tomatoes are my favorite, although the onions and peppers are awesome, too).

The reason I say you should start with a mixed grill is because had I not tried it, I would have assumed beforehand that the steak kabobs would have been my faves, but there is something special about the way the chicken takes on the flavors of the spice mixture that makes it my favorite of the trio. The kufta kabobs taste a little like a flavorful, tender sausage and the beef chunks also are tender and tasty, but I rate both the chicken kabobs and shawarma ahead of the meat selections.

My favorite entrée at Zaytoun, however, are the tender rib lamb chops. The five small chops are soaked in a lemon, garlic and olive oil marinade. The chops may only be a couple of bites each, but they’re so flavorful and melt in your mouth, and they’re served with those awesome charred veggies and a fragrant and delicate white rice.

The only “from the grill” entrée I can’t sample (due to an allergy) is the shrimp kabob dinner, but the shrimp looked to be large and also marinated and grilled to a perfect turn.

There also is a Zaytoun Family Platter er for up to six people featuring chicken, beef and kufta kabobs and chicken shawarma meat, with veggies and rice.

I’ve only sampled one of Zaytoun’s brick oven entree/appetizer pies to date and I will say that the spinach pie — which comes in four half-moon-shaped pieces — is definitely unique. It’s not at all like the Greek spanikopita — although the spinach is mixed with garlic, onion and some cheese — but the flavor is more lemony than any spanikopita I’ve tried.

Other pies I haven’t yet sampled are the feta cheese, ground beef and Zaatar pies. Zaatar is a Middle Eastern spice that is mixed with olive oil and spread over the pita dough before baking. 

Save Room For Dessert!

Although there may be other items added in the future, I’ve already sampled all three decadent desserts on Zaytoun’s menu. All three are absolutely delicious, so I hope you’ll be adventurous and give one or more of them a sampling.

I was never a big fan of traditional baklava, but I’ll admit I never tasted it flakier or more delicious than at Zaytoun. Instead of being too solid and chewy, the phyllo dough is baked all light and airy  and the chopped walnuts are mixed in a delicate syrup that never gets too hard. The three pieces are a perfect dessert for two people. I also enjoyed the traditional cheese roll with cream (Halawat al Jibn), which features a sticky-smooth layer of wheat, cheese and sugar wrapped around sweet cream, with crushed pistachios and a sweet syrup, but it isn’t as overly sweet as you might expect.

My favorite dessert on the menu is the knafeh, which is a traditional farina cake filled with sweet cheeses, served with pistachios and drizzled with a rose syrup. Although it is sweeter than the cheese roll, the knafeh is even crispier than most apple crisps I’ve tasted. The crust tastes almost like deep-fried, Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal, except it isn’t fried at all. Note-I wouldn’t try to polish off this dessert without sharing it with at least two or three other people. 

As for beverages, due to religious restrictions, there is no beer, wine or alcohol served at Zaytoun. There are Pepsi products available, but I recommend the fresh mint lemonade and the minty hot tea served in a fancy cup with an ornate top. The coffee and cappuccino are both very tasty, too, and perfect complements to any of the desserts.

Zaytoun Mediterranean Grill (10970 Cross Creek Blvd.) is open every day for lunch and dinner and surely lives up to its claim of “Authentic, Exceptional & Exquisite Cuisine.” For more info, call 354-2515, visit Zaytoun-Grill.com or see the ad on page 41 of this issue.  

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