When one reviews new Lebanese/Syrian restaurants in Nicosia it is difficult not to make comparisons with the standard bearer: the late, much lamented maestro Ghazi Abu Fayzal. His kitchen pulsated with intense activity; the flashing blades on the acres of vegetation, the atmosphere clouded with the aromas of sliced, diced and spliced herbs and salad crops. Preparation was paramount and remains the sine qua non of successful Levantine cuisine.
Za’atar, the latest challenge to the firmly established Syrian Friendship Group opened very quietly a month ago inside the old city, close to Phaneromeni in Aischylou Street. The setting is unpretentious and the interior even less so: one could describe the décor as downtown Beirut via Homeland but relieved by the vivid artwork of Adi Atassi, a local artist – and native to the beleaguered city of Homs – whose paintings are on sale with some of the income dedicated to the Syrian refugees.
We arrive on a Wednesday night, the place is very quiet apart from a solitary Canadian diner, who informs us that the food is very good, and there is a lot of it. Furnishings are plain and the premises extensive; the rooms seem to extend to the horizon. We order two glasses of Arak. The menu is thorough and lists each dish by title with the English translation beneath. Bravo.
It seems the best way to proceed is by ordering the full mezeh and persuade the charming waiter to go easy on the delivery: regular visitors to the dish know how the experience can be spoilt by overloading. However, no such problems at Za’atar. The Fattous and Tabouli are crackingly fresh, and apart from the local lumpen tasteless tomatoes, are as good as any previously encountered. Hummus is obviously a specialty of Omar, the chef proprietor, as he lists five different preparations and serves us his family variety. The dips are an essential feature of the Mezeh and apart from the Hummus we get Moutabbal: smoked aubergine mashed with tahini and yogurt; mashed potatoes with a hint of garlic – Ghazi’s could make your nose bleed – Salatat Zeytoun: chopped green olives, tomatoes and peppers and Kishki, comprising strained yogurt, bulgar wheat and walnuts, accompanied by a basket of hot, paper-thin pita. Absolutely smashing.
Next up, a plate of Falafel – hot chickpea patties – and Fatayer – cheese in filo pastry with a tahini sauce. We ordered a bottle of Paranga, a Greek wine not previously encountered that proved to be a good companion. Even though the kitchen had played a slow hand we were struggling, and when the mixed grill arrived we needed a rest. The chicken and lamb kebabs were delicious as was the rest of the platter, but we were overwhelmed; the establishment deserves much younger appetites. The food is first-rate. Next time we will be more selective. The sweets were on the house.
Once word spreads among the knowing ones this place will thrive. Omar is in the kitchen and his wife Agathe looks after the rest, and they have the experience of running a seasonal restaurant in Ayia Napa to draw on. Before we left a party of jolly young girls occupied one of the far rooms that ajoins the garden area. The premises can accommodate 150 covers and are open every day from 7pm for dinner and offers lunch on weekends.
WHERE 61 Aischylou St, Inside the old city of Nicosia
PRICE Mezeh €15