Just how the Lebanese do it

Fariel Salahuddin on a new eatery that holds itself to the finest culinary standards from the Levant

Just how the Lebanese do it
Zaatar is the new kid on the block. It’s only been around a month, and Karachi was sorely lacking an authentic, good quality Lebanese restaurant. Now I’m very picky, having eaten Lebanese food all over the world, so I was ready to be disappointed, but I have to admit: I’ve been back there four times already!

You walk in through a stylish glass frontage on Khy-e-Nishaat, at a lovely spot looking out on green trees and the lush gardens opposite, and find yourself in an eclectic interior. A screen, which is a nod to the typical Islamic motifs of old, leads you through antique floor and wall tiles to colourful tables made of up-cycled wood. The owner was an interior designer and it shows in every element of the unique and quirky design here. Black and white photographs of old Lebanon adorn the walls, but there are modern elements too, so there is always something new to discover.

The menu is simple, just six or seven cold mezze and the same number of hot…but perfectly done! The hommos is superb, creamy but very tasty and the moutabal (aubergine puree with tahini and garlic) has the original smoky flavor that is its signature – but that you rarely find.

You won't find kebabs loaded with garam masala, and there is no compromise on authentic flavours in order to draw in the crowds

The fatoush and tabouleh salads are refreshing and taste like the real thing too.

Among the hot mezze, the falafel is a standout item – crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, served with a tahini sauce. The fried kibbeh is beautifully flavoured with aromatic spices, and fried just right. The chicken wings are the best in Karachi, strong on garlic and lemon and cooked just right.

Then there are the grills. Again, just a few to choose from, so I tend to opt for the mixed grill, which gives me a bit of everything. Just a word of warning: the restaurant serves proper lamb, not goat, so if you’re not a fan of lamb meat, stick to the chicken items. I, however, love their lamb shawarma, and looking around at the other diners, so do most people. It is fragrant and tender, not dry and overcooked as you tend to get with lower quality ones, and melts in the mouth. The hommos with lamb shawarma topping seems to be a best-seller, and you can order it in a wrap, or as a plate.

On my mixed grill platter I got shish tawouk (skewers of cubed chicken breast), which is very lightly flavoured, as per the authentic version. However there is a spicy version for those who like it hotter. Then there is the lamb kafta, a minced kebab with onion and parsley, and the chicken and lamb shawarmas. All were tender and juicy.

As per typical Lebanese food, the dishes are not overly spiced, but the restaurant serves its signature ‘shatta’ sauce, a hot chili sauce made fresh in the restaurant, with all the food – so you can add it as you like. The chicken dishes are also served with Lebanese ‘toom’, that white fluffy strong garlic paste that really wakes up the chicken! All in all, I found the sauces delicious and adding just the right amount of extra punch.

I was looking for French fries with my grill dish, and was disappointed to learn that the restaurant doesn’t offer this. When I asked why, I was introduced to the Lebanese version, ‘Batata Harra’. This dish of cubed crisp fried potatoes is sauteed with a good kick of chopped garlic and chili, topped with chopped fresh coriander and a squeeze of lemon…..so much better than boring old French fries, and complements the grills perfectly.

Desserts are limited at the moment, and a Dessert of the Day is what is offered. I had the Kunafe, a crispy dish with cheese inside two layers of vermicelli, topped with a rose-flavoured sugar syrup and crushed pistachios. It was every bit as good and as authentic as I’ve eaten anywhere. On another occasion I had the Mohallabia, a soft set custard dish made of ground rice and milk, flavoured with a touch of rosewater and topped with crushed pistachios and almonds. It was similar to a Pakistani ‘firni’, and nice, but not my favourite.

To drink, I keep opting for their Mint Lemonade Cooler made with crushed ice. It is packed with mint and very refreshing. I can see it being a great Iftaar favourite.

If you’re looking for a Pakistani version of Lebanese food, Zaatar is not the place for you. You won’t find kebabs loaded with garam masala, and there is no compromise on authentic flavours in order to draw in the crowds. If however, you have a discerning palate and a love of authentic Lebanese food, you’re going to love Zaatar!