If you’ve heard the saying: “How do you know someone does Crossfit?” You’ve probably also heard the response: “Easy, they won’t stop talking about it.” Having joined Crossfit a few months ago, I am here to put an end to this fiction.
While I would say that I have more conversations about things like burpees and deadlifts than the average person, I have also made some amazing friends at Crossfit, with whom discussions span well beyond the exercise realm. This past weekend, some of these friends and I ventured outside of the box (er…”gym”) for a birthday celebration at Au Za’atar, an Arabian French Bistro that recently opened in the East Village.
Named after a signature spice blend from Lebanon consisting herbs like thyme, oregano, and sumac, Au Za’atar features classic brunch dishes, re-interpreted with a Middle Eastern touch. The menu highlights the flavors of the Levant and North Africa, regions rich in culinary traditions, but also heavily influenced by France.
As one who frequents farm-to-table restaurants, the decor at Au Za’atar was a welcome change from rusty lawn tools and vintage picture frames. Featuring smooth dark wood and exposed brick, wooden pallets also furnished the space, serving as dividers and shelves. Outside, seats ran down Avenue A and around the corner, which is where my group and I chose to stake out for the afternoon.
Settling in at our table, with an awning protecting us from the blistering sun, our brunch popped off with some bubbly. After all, what is a birthday without champagne? And while our brunch was being taken care of by the house, I still noted the deal at $20 a bottle. Even better, the champagne was coupled with za’atar-dusted pita bread and a saucer of labne (a thick, zesty yogurt). Between the subtle crunch of the sesame seeds on the bread and smooth, tangy dip, this could easily make the Top 10 complimentary bread baskets of the city, if there is such a list.
From here, our meal continued on a high note, with a tasty fig crostini. Made with a crusty baguette, creamy goat cheese, and a chunky fig jam, this was a simple, yet sweet, opening to our brunch.
After the crostini, we were greeted by a quartet of mezzes, served with more warm triangles of pita bread, and a heaping tray of fresh, marinated vegetables.
While we had some issues getting silverware, when this finally did arrive, the first of the quartet we tried was the hummus. Pureed into a silky blend, the hummus was clean and simple, made with fresh tahini, garlic, and lemon. Next we dove into the baba ghanoush, which was light and flavorful, with a charred, smoky aftertaste. Mixed with tahini, this added a nice, nutty undertone, and was enhanced by a spritz of lemon juice.
We also had the vegetable moussaka, which was another eggplant-based dish but with a chunkier texture. A mixture of eggplant, cherry tomatoes, green pepper, and chick peas, this was a personal favorite, and had a rich, earthy flavor with an added pop of freshness from the tomatoes and peppers.
Having worked our way through the mezzes, pita, and giant assortment of vegetables, we had almost reached our fill, but the kitchen insisted on bringing out some of their main entrees for us to try. We were used to testing ourselves at the gym, but not as used to this challenge on the stomach! Regardless, we powered on.
As our friendly server spread various plates out on the table, the Kafta Benedict quickly caught my eye. Made with a grilled lamb patty in place of a bread base, the dish was topped with poached eggs and a spicy Moroccan sauce. Despite my fullness, I still managed to put a dent in this main, and found the red sauce to be a lighter and more flavorful swap to traditional hollandaise.
Also included in our assortment of entrees was the Moroccan Omelette, prepared with lamb sausage, red peppers, onions, and goat cheese. This was good, but lacked any sort of “wow” factor. Positioned next to a small pile of well-seasoned french fries and a crisp, cucumber-filled fattoush salad, I actually found myself more focused on the sides. Rounding off many of the brunch entrees, these savory accompaniments were just as satisfying as the main feature.
Finally, to complete our brunch feast with something sweet for the birthday girl, we had the Brioche French toast. Covered in nutella and framed around a small Arabian fruit salad, this could easily be dessert. While the globs of nutella were a little too sugary and overpowering for my taste, the fruit was delightful, dressed in a creamy glaze of ashta cream, honey, and pistachios. While I can’t say I would order the French toast again, I would definitely order the fruit on its own.
All in all, Au Za’atar offered a diverse mash up of appetizers and entrees with flavorful spice combinations and fresh ingredients. While some of the main entrees could have been more memorable, a brunch of assorted mezzes and champagne won’t hear any complaints from me.
The Bitches say: B. The offerings at Au Za’atar are flavorful and fresh. While the service has some kinks to be worked out, this is a good option for groups seeking casual brunch fare.
188 Ave. A
New York, NY
Au Za’atar serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.