For many years, there was a truckies’ café called Zorba’s on the corner of Sydney Rd and Munro St, which served cheap souvlaki, chips, hamburgers, and other food of that ilk until 2am weeknights (4am on weekends). In my more nocturnal days, these late hours were an absolute boon, though the souvlakis were occasionally… less than boonful.
Sometime in the last year or so, they closed down, and for a while there was nothing on that corner, but for the last few weeks, as I’ve been walking home of an evening, there has been a lot of activity in that old café. Every day has marked new developments… painting… refurbishing… black and orange café furniture… then some really gorgeous things like a feature wall of what looks like Moroccan photos and architecture, and four big, ornamentally-tiled tables pushed together in the centre of the space to form a communal table. Very attractive. The sign out the front says ‘Zaatar’, which I thoroughly approve of as a name, since it continues the ‘Z’ theme for this corner and is of course the name of a Lebanese herb, seed and spice mix, generally served on bread. (Indeed, their website, which I am already charmed by, tells us that “Zaatar makes you big and strong… and SMART!”)
Walking past this morning, I saw that they were actually open! (Yes, I really was that excited – remember, I walked 14 kilometres to Williamstown yesterday after work, and then went on a ghost walk – you can bet that I was ready for someone else to make my lunch today…) The late morning was set aside to help a friend with house-hunting, but I insisted we go there for lunch. After all, it’s our new local Lebanese place – we need to check it out!
As you can probably tell by the tone of this review, I loved Zaatar. I gather it is a family business, owned by the sons of the man who ran the A1 bakery in Brunswick (long known for its cheap-but-excellent Turkish pizzas, and coincidentally about as far from my old house in Brunswick as Zaatar is from our current house), and this is reflected in both the price and quality of the food.
The menu is very simple and geared towards mezze, breads, dips and salads, as well as some lovely sweets. They have a nice set of menu packages where you choose 3 mezze and a dip for $6 or add a salad for a couple more dollars, and scale up from there, as well as having mini pizzas ($3.50) and ‘zoccacias’ (ranging up to $9.50), which are a thick flatbread folded over all sorts of delectable ingredients and then toasted. Andrew tried a zoccacia, and my househunting friend and I both went with the mezze and dip and salad option, the better to try a variety of things.
The first thing I have to say is that their tabouli is *wonderful*. It’s a proper, Lebanese tabouli, which is to say, heavy on the herbs and tomato and very light on the burghul. Very refreshing and gorgeous with the mezze. The dips we tried were labneh (a drained yoghurt dip, which, yes, I know how to make, but does require forward planning, which I don’t usually manage) and eggplant – both were good examples of their kind.
The kafta was great – I was surprised initially to find it (and the other mezze) served at room temperature, but it worked with the cold dips and salad. The lamb filling was particularly tasty. The felafel was a felafel, and they can’t quite compete with the Half Moon Café there, but then, who can? The little spiced lamb sausage was also great, and my friend had the borek, which she said was good.
Andrew had a kafta zoccacia, which was very colourful and visually appealing, and I am informed was also very tasty. In terms of serving size, I found the mezze + salad + dip option was a good size for lunch – not a big lunch, but I wasn’t hungry afterward, either. Andrew’s zoccacia was definitely a substantial lunch.
We also bought some baklava to take away, as well as some labneh and some little cheese pies – they had a freezer and fridge case full of all sorts of goodies to take home and save for later, though I was a bit scared of the luridly-coloured melting moment macarons (I mean, I love the idea, but they were *very* lurid!). The baklava was the best I’ve had around here, which on Sydney Road is saying something – very crisp and honeyed and we have got through far more of it than we should have in one afternoon.
In short, this place makes me happy. There is only one, very slight, negative, which was a fairly narrow choice of mezze – I’m not sure if that’s because they make different things on different days, or if they just have those four. I suspect, given the little cheese pies, spinach pies and lamb pies in the freezer, that the mezze menu may change from day to day, and I believe the salad does also. Edited to add: they had cheese pies in the mezze selection when I went last weekend, and they also do potato and pea things, and potato and parsley things, so there are definitely more veggie options available. (The choice was entirely wide enough for one day’s selecting, but given that I am already planning a weekly stop there for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday, it might get a little dull in time.)
In terms of catering to dietary requirements, I confess I was not paying close attention, but I certainly saw a number of vegetarian options among the zoccacias and mini pizzas, pides and such, and of course the felafel, dips and salads were all vegetarian. You could definitely get a good vegetarian meal there; vegan would be more limiting but not impossible (though you might well be stuck with the staples of bread, felafel, tabouli/salads and hummus). Plenty of dairy-free options that I could see, and egg-free also seems likely (it’s less easy to tell without asking, however). And if you have an issue with nuts, you’d probably need to avoid the desserts, but the savouries seemed pretty safe.
Gluten-free eating would, I think, be more of a problem because bread is what they *do* – bread and grains are central to most of their food, so it would be harder to work around, and rather missing the point of the place. And of course, the kitchen would not be gluten-free. On the other hand, I rather suspect that halal wouldn’t be a problem…!
One thing that was very noticeable was how friendly the staff were, and how happy they were to talk about their food, so I’m betting that it would be fairly easy to find out about menu options if you did go there.
In short, I would definitely recommend Zaatar as a source of tasty, and quite healthy food, friendly to a fair range of dietary requirements, remarkably cheap, and with very helpful staff. We’ll be going back, quite often, if today’s experience turns out to be standard. And if either tabouli or baklava are your thing, you really, really should go there!
(oh, and their traditional Lebanese breakfast looks amazing – I seem to recall seeing flatbread, zaatar, labneh, egg, lebanese sausage and tabouli all listed on it – yum!)
Edited to add: Their Lebanese breakfast *is* amazing – I had pictured a sort of middle-eastern fry-up, but it’s actually much more refreshing and healthy than that, with slices of something like lamb salami, two eggs baked in a terra cotta pot, a small (but definitely sufficient) bowl of labneh, and lots of lovely fresh mint, tomatoes, cucumber and olives, as well as warm flatbread. Absolutely gorgeous, and more than sufficient to get you started for the day…
Zaatar is located at 365 Sydney Rd, Coburg (on the corner of Sydney Rd and Munro St), and is currently open from 7am until 8pm. I’ll update this with days of operation once I know what they are.
This time last year…Review: Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen Recipe: Potato and Kale Enchiladas Living the High Life: Miss Marple’s Tea Rooms