Baton Rouge is swimming in shawarma.
For reasons I have yet to discern, there are more Greek and Lebanese restaurants here than in parts of those actual countries.
There’s a new one, and it’s a contender.
Zaatar blew us away.
We started our weekday lunch with a complimentary basket of warm, soft, slightly chewy pita slathered with toum, a creamy garlic paste. As an appetizer, we ordered a Lebanese pizza, or man’oushé, which took that delicious pita and covered it in a generous amount of gooey cheese, salty feta and spinach with a lemony bite ($4.25). It was more than enough for an appetizer for our party of four, and could make two meals for one person.
At this time, I’d like to discuss spicy. It’s not, in fact, synonymous with hot. It is an apt description of a great conglomeration of spices, which do not have to be hot or include cayenne in any way, working in harmony to enhance the flavor of a food. Like beef, swimming in a rich, savory blend of shawarma spices (think nutmeg) served with a bright, garlicky hummus and more of that pita. You can get the beef in a sandwich for $6.75.
A plate is the most expensive thing on the menu at $9.75, served with two sides, one of which is a salad topped with a fresh balsamic vinaigrette with its own hearty helping of mint and other herbs and spices. It should be bottled and sold. Immediately.
Monday through Friday, Zaatar offers a daily lunch special with some interesting takes on Louisiana favorites (Monday’s is red beans with beef cubes over rice) for $7.75. It was Friday, which featured moujadara with a salad and a choice of hummus or baba ghanouj. Heaping mounds of perfectly done, well-seasoned lentils and rice were topped with caramlized onions, giving us another reason to love Fridays.
Halloumi cheese is another Baton Rouge Middle Eastern restaurant staple. It’s usually served fried golden and languishing in a pool of delicious, herby olive oil.
Zaatar doesn’t have fried cheese. It does something better with its halloumi, serving it fresh with tomatoes, cucumbers and a lightly savory oil wrapped tightly into a whole, dinner plate-sized piece of pita ($5.75). The result is a long, thin sandwich that could be enjoyed anywhere, up to and including in the car. The same could be said for the falafel sandwich ($4.75), which took a very fresh, light falafel with a velvety interior and crisp exterior, and made a sandwich of it with tahini and vegetables.
Whatever you do, don’t skip dessert. And, if you’re a coffee fan, get a cup of the fantastically strong, but not bitter, Lebanese coffee ($2.25) to go with it. Two squares of baklava will set you back $1.50 and is worth every single cent of that and every single minute you’ll spend on the treadmill working it off. Jog back to work if you have to, but eat the baklava.
And you, chocofou (something that includes chocolate and Nutella and bread in the description, $2.50), I’m coming for you next.