Once upon a time, self-appointed food critics tasted a dish and gave it thumbs up (or down). These days it has to pass a different test. Is it ready for its close-up?
Don’t blame restaurants for tuning in. As a recent email pitch from one restaurant suggested, you really must try its “Instagramable Bottomless Brunch Deal” (operative word: instagramable).
In keeping with trends, Au Za’atar has opened in Midtown East with a highly photogenic dish — or rather, experience — made popular by its sister resto on Avenue A. Neighbors, welcome New York City’s first tabletop shawarma, a miniature (but still, impressive!) fire-hot spit upon which chicken, beef or lamb — sliced, stacked and impaled — is blistered to perfection before landing in front of your hungry eyes with a carving knife, adorably downsized catsup bottles and a basket of pita.
Lots of fries. Picture a mountain of them, rustically hand-cut, doused with salt and lightly spiced, so irresistible that every cellphone at the table practically sings out, “Let’s take pictures now!”
The fee for a personal chicken shawarma spit with pita and fries, advertised as fit for three to four people but easily able to feed four to six? $98. Bragging rights? Priceless!
Situated at 58th Street and First Avenue, about a half-hour walk from the United Nations, Au Za’atar is doing a brisk business, for the moment exclusively outdoors. During one recent group outing, the seven of us were so busy exclaiming over the meal we almost forgot we were sitting amid highway traffic in the dark of night as temperatures plunged to near freezing. The friendly, helpful wait staff had wheeled out a floor heater to augment the heater overhead. Both were working so hard that the person sitting closest to the one at face level wondered if he was being shawarma’d himself.
We ended up staying two hours. Who could leave, when fries were still viable and there were enough for two more meals?
Arguably, we hadn’t needed to start with quite so many choices from the mezze menu, including delicious renditions of fried cauliflower; eggplant with pita chips and chickpeas dressed in yogurt and pomegranate seeds; and mujadara, a dish whose flavor is larger than the sum of its parts (rice, lentils and crispy onions). The mezze come with an array of garnishes — sour-pickled cucumbers, pickled beets, garlic-spiked thickened yogurt, a fairly tame hot sauce spiked with raw onion and tahini- and aioli-style sauces in cunning miniature bottles. House-made pita, soft, pliable and topped by a za’atar spice mix, comes with everything.
Au Za’atar Midtown opened last summer and is still ironing out pandemic-related kinks. Stay tuned for lunch hours and indoor dining (though no problem using the restrooms). For now, four-tops wrap the corner, some sheltered under sturdy, well-designed sheds with plastic barriers between tables as well as heaters and others lined up in the open air, awaiting a change in the weather.
Tables can be merged to accommodate a group, and the holidays could be the perfect time to leisurely relish you meal. Just make sure your party takes care crossing the First Avenue bike lane: the traffic is murder.
Au Za’atar describes itself as Lebanese/Middle Eastern, and its menu offers dozens of dishes from the region, including mains, salads, sandwiches, cheese plates and a seductive range of dips and mezze, the traditional small plates served as appetizers.
With platters running from about $25 to $36, many diners adopt the strategy of going big on small plates ($9 to $17), ordering perhaps one per person and a few more for the table. It’s fun to customize, but if you prefer to let the kitchen do the thinking, there’s a mezze and dips sampler ($54).
Or go easy on the starters and straight for a main course. We enjoyed a hefty long-braised lamb shank ($29). Fork-tender to the point of falling off the bone, it was dotted with fried onion bits and accompanied by a mound of coarsely mashed potatoes finished with a little lemon rind and red pepper and a lemony sauce.
Samak meshwi ($28) — a whole branzino — was described on the menu as char-grilled, but appeared to have been roasted. It came with fresh lemon and a tahini-lemon “tarator” sauce, which threatened to overpower the delicate, parsley-flecked fish.
A “family style” mixed-grill platter ($54) includes chicken, filet mignon, beef and kafta kebabs (seasoned ground meatballs), grilled vegetables and more of those addictive hand-cut fries.
Our favorite small plates included the mujadara, the bemieh bzeit (okra simmered in olive oil with garlic and cilantro), fattoush salad (greens, tomato, cucumber, radish, onion and toasted pita in a lemon sumac vinaigrette) and fattet al-betenjane (eggplant chunks, chickpeas, pomegranate and cranberries in a yogurt sauce with toasted pita). Less interesting was rekakat lahme, a filo-wrapped roll filled with minced beef and pine nuts.
Drinks include an abbreviated list of cocktails, a decent selection of wines and beers and several nonalcoholic choices. We developed a taste for Lebanese red, white and rosé wines from Domaine Wardy ($11 to $13 a glass). Incidentally, the Avenue A location has a bigger selection of Lebanese wines, including a few vintages of the legendary Chateau Musar going back to 1996.
The staff during all our visits was invariably welcoming and efficient. We found the 58th Street tables to be somewhat warmer and more isolated from the steady combustion-engine hum on First Avenue. Our feelings about the piped-in music were mixed: the decibel level was high for our taste, but maybe it helped mask the sound of drag racers.
Au Za’atar, 1063 First Avenue at 58th Street (212-625-3982), is open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. There is currently no lunch service or indoor seating.
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Deborah Baldwin is a veteran editor and writer, most recently for This Old House; previously, she was an editor for The New York Times, working on the Style section and other parts of the newspaper. She and her husband, Irwin Arieff, wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.