Promise falafel and/or shawarma under the roof of an independent restaurant, and we’ll be there — few foods are as soulfully nourishing as well-done Mediterranean classics. Zait & Za’atar promises these classics on its homespun, approachable menu, but it has some focusing to do before it hits the bull’s-eye.
One of the most difficult challenges facing any restaurant is that of decor. Go too cluttered, and you eat up valuable space (and make a difficult space to clean); go too minimal and you risk making guests feel as though they’re eating in a warehouse. Zait & Za’atar goes the latter route, with bare walls and widely spaced tables that give the room a somewhat foreboding feel.
That said, the first thing to hit our artfully tiled table was delicious. Zait and Za’atar’s fresh-squeezed lemonade ($3) may actually be the best in town. The sugar-to-citrus level is perfect: It’s incredibly tart and compensatingly sweet, with an herbal supporting note that makes for a deep, balanced, thirst-quenching beverage of the highest order.
After the lemonade things get more complex. We tried the restaurant’s Meat Shawarma Sandwich ($7.50, above) and its Falafel Sandwich ($6, top) and both had elements of greatness undone by parts that weren’t completely functional. Both wraps were crippled by the dry, cardboardlike pita that contained them, an especially glaring shortcoming when compared with the mellow, toothsome, soft pita around the corner at The Naughty Greek.
The beef in the Meat Shawarma Sandwich was close to perfect. It was tender, rich, seasoned correctly, and quite plentiful. But the tahini that came with it was gritty and sawdusty in flavor, and the saladlike elements packed into the sandwich lacked the intense acid or crisp vegetal brightness required to defuse it. Some yogurt sauce might also have helped — anything, really, to put some distance between such delectable meat and such an unfortunate topping.
As for the falafel, the fried chickpea balls themselves were quite good — cooked thoroughly with a nice crispy exterior, and spiced properly without being overflavored. But, again, a brighter note (a more aggressively acidic and/or spicy salad, a sparky daub of tzatziki) would have been welcome, since the sandwich, as served, was dragged down by its pita to a place where earthiness dominated all other flavors.
The serving size for the restaurant’s Za’atar Fries ($2.79) was absolutely enormous, and normally we’d cheer that impulse, but the fries themselves were dusted with only a bit of earthy za’atar on top, and were otherwise dry and unremarkable. Zait & Za’atar serves its ketchup by the tiny packet, and it would take about 15-20 packets and probably a good five minutes of squeezing to create a pile of ketchup big enough for these fries. We gave up after two.
We tried the restaurant’s Yafa Pudding ($2) for dessert and found it unusual. Rather than offering sweetness, this Jell-O-like confection supplied an aggressive, slightly astringent orange bite, like a marmalade. In another context (an afternoon tea, for example) it might be a great small taste, but something like layali lubnan (a rosewater-scented semolina pudding) or a baklava would have suited the main meal a little better.
With some tuning up — first and foremost, better (perhaps house-made) bread, and a more balanced presentation of its sandwiches — Zait & Za’atar could be an independent St. Paul gem. Until then, the search for the perfect falafel continues.
Zait & Za’atar
Middle Eastern in Merriam Park, St. Paul
1626 Selby Ave
St. Paul, MN 55104
Tue-Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $6-$9
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Street parking