January 8, 2014

Zaytoon in Clinton (Ann Needle)

By Ann Needle

Back in a Boston childhood, ask mom to put hummus on the shopping list, and she would likely reply, “Hum what?” Happily, American palates are more adventurous nowadays, putting Middle Eastern cuisine squarely on the shelves of even the most basic supermarket.

Then there’s Zaytoon, which takes Mideast food to another level. Taste this Clinton restaurant’s versions of Mideast favorites, then compare them to their pre-packaged market forms, and you may never buy tabbouleh in the one-pound party tub again.

Oddly, Zaytoon caught my eye walking back to the car from reviewing another, nearby Clinton restaurant. A sign board out front advertised falafel, which I would sell my college diploma for. So, I carted the family there this past weekend.

First, if you enjoy Mideastern food from a “falafel truck” in the big city, put that memory aside for a minute. This is definitely Mideast, your favorites are there. It is also Iraqi, so you can indulge in some dishes beyond the Israeli/Syrian Mideastern common here. Still, Zaytoon does a phenomenal job of the standards we love.

We started out with the hummus and grape leaves. (Together, these dishes were just beyond what four of us could handle, so plan accordingly.) Neither dish seemed to be drowning in oil—a common affliction in many other restaurants. The creamy, lemony hummus was accompanied by dipping bread that was piping fresh—the Mideastern bread in stores never impresses me. The grape leaves were not soggy, yet were still tender.
Collectively, our four entrees covered the universe of American-known and unknown Mideast fare. The falafel wrap was full of those tasty chickpea nuggets, offering a crispy outside, soft inside. Miraculously, these were NOT dry. This was accompanied by French fries that could run rings around any American restaurant. Who knew?

As for the meats, the chicken shawarma was an unqualified hit; meat nuggets marinated in a spice mixture that did not overpower. The lamb/beef shawarma was tender, shaved meat. But, for something not often seen elsewhere, look to the kubba, fried meat dumplings that were inhaled off the plate so fast, we prepared for a choking incident. All of these were served with various salads, plus a wonderful, sweet-ish biryani (basmati rice fried up with vegetables, potatoes, and spices.)

The only blah note came from the mung (small, black bean) soup, served free with our meals. Compared with everything else, it seemed bland. However, Zaytoon serves a different, free cup of soup with each meal each night, so you may end up with something else (yellow lentil, chicken, potato, etc.).

Do NOT skip dessert—specifically, the baklava. We ordered two pieces to sample, and the filo dough sweets are still dancing in my head like sugar plums

Will It Survive?
It was Saturday night, and Zaytoon was not at all busy, despite the quality and very reasonable prices; about $55 for our boat-load of food. Opened in Clinton about a year ago, the restaurant does face increasing competition. Perhaps the town is just too far out of the major cities, away from folks willing to venture beyond what has become standard Mideast fare. Zaytoon’s lack of a liquor license also could be at play. The food is halal (cooked to the standards of Muslim law), so even a BYOB policy could be unacceptable.

For now, Zaytoon can be a pleasant trip out of the ordinary.

Visit zaytoonhalal.com for more information.