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Zaatar Brings Lebanese Spice to the Pearl

posted on: Jul 28, 2015

As Portlanders explore the Pearl this First Thursday walking from gallery to shop, peering at canvases and in cafes, one new destination is featuring ancient art form.
Zaatar, a Lebanese restaurant on the northeast corner of 10th and Flanders, has added The Art of Bellydancing to its robust spices and billowing pita breads that already have delighted patrons every other night of the month.

“We create the sound, the sights and the taste of Lebanon,” says owner Andre Karam, who decided to add the First Thursday bellydancing to spice up the summer nights even further.

The live dancing features a traditional dancer named Henna who performs in multiple costumes between six and nine First Thursday nights. In July, diners waited out the door for a table.

“I love the atmosphere,” said Thanh Nguyen dining with friends that Thursday.

It’s an atmosphere Andre designed to bring an authentic Lebanese experience to the heart of Portland’s Pearl, and starting August 22 he is adding live Mediterranean music every Saturday night.

“It’s an experience that hasn’t been in Portland for many years now,” said musician David Reihs. “These music styles are unique in Portland and the Northwest.”

Good Food, Good Reviews

Zaatar already claims four-star ratings on Yelp and most patrons interviewed rave about the smooth hummus and the smoky baba ghanoush (family recipes all), but the pita itself is eye-catching walked to you from the oven as a still-steaming pillow, airy inside yet thick enough to scoop up the restaurant’s popular traditional Lebanese mezza dishes. 

The traditional mezza comes with lamb and chicken shawarma, kafta kabob, falafel, baba ghanoush, veggie grape leaves, hummus, tabouli, arnabeet (cauliflower) and pita for under $40.

“The food was excellent,” said Hardass Khalsa as she finished dining at the restaurant’s outdoor seating that lines Flanders with green shading umbrellas. “It was not super heavy, it was light and well-spiced.”

The compliments to the chef get passed beyond the kitchen at Zaatar (which is named for a spice held in such esteem in Lebanon that school children are said to eat extra zaatar before a big exam). Andre makes sure his sister-in-law Emelin knows the recipes she has kept alive for generations continue to please.

A Family Recipe

Even before the Pearl District began its own renaissance, Andre’s family was seeking their new start. He was ten when his older brother Tony moved to Oregon amid the civil war in Lebanon. Tony arrived in 1983. Andre came in 1987. Back then ethnic fare was hardly commonplace in Oregon kitchens, and Tony don’t feel his experience in the appliance industry in Lebanon would help him take on any of the major retailers selling washing machines and fridges, so he turned to the ever popular pizza pie. Tony’s Long Island Pizza on Morrison downtown would become the place where Andre would get his first taste of the restaurant business. Tony now owns Karam’s Lebanese Deli and Catering in Beaverton, but the recipes – mostly carried on by Tony’s wife Emelin – hit a different clientele in the Pearl. 

“We work together as a team,” Tony said of how the family continually updates their traditional recipes.  “She goes [to Zaatar] and gives Andre the start.”

Andre prides himself on the fresh, local ingredients he uses in his dishes, and he beams about the desserts that are all the artistry of his niece (Tony’s daughter) Noel and her husband, Abdo Azaar.

What’s for Dessert?

In the world of Lebanese cuisine, or Middle Eastern restaurants for that matter, Zaatar’s desert may be its secret weapon. 

Walk in any day and Andre will encourage you to peruse the special case holding Noel and Abdo’s sweet crafts. In the Pearl, Noel said, “they like everything to be a mousse, so we deliver to what the people like.”

Like the passion – a domed cake with mango, coconut and chocolate. “It has a bit of tart but balanced with dark chocolate and a pop of mango,” she described. “You feel like you’re on a tropical island.”

Traditional Lebanese deserts remain top-sellers at Zaatar, including knafe, a warm treat of sweet cheeses that combines ricotta and mozzarella topped with a rose water simple syrup made from scratch. The Alhambra, a chocolate hazelnut cake filled with rich chocolate, is also a big seller.

Andre’s efforts to create a genuine Lebanese family experience touch every aspect of the restaurant. As screens in the restaurant scroll through family photos of the Lebanese landscape, his daughters, Joel and Jessica, welcome guests to the experience. 

“They help,” he said. “When they come in they create family.”