It used to be that if you lived in Dallas and wanted to treat yourself to really good Lebanese food, the go-to spot was up in Richardson – Afrah Mediterranean Restaurant and Pastries. For many years, Afrah's lunch buffet, with its silken hummus, excellent salads, soulful stews and freshly baked pitas, was one of the most delicious bargains around. It became so popular that in 2015, Afrah's owners moved the place into a much larger building they constructed next door and opened a second location in Irving.
I have not yet stopped by the Irving location, but I did dine a couple of times at the new Richardson place. It's still worth a visit if you're in the neighborhood and craving those flavors, but I have found the cooking there to be not as reliably wonderful as it used to be.
All the more reason to cheer when Marc Mansour and Chaouki "C.K." Khoury announced last year that they planned to open Zatar, a Lebanese small-plates place in Deep Ellum.
Stop into the warm, welcoming, stylishly tricked-out space, and (if things go the way Mansour and Khoury intend), a basket of puffy, hot, just-baked pita will land on your table soon after you're seated, along with a dish of za'atar – an olive oil dip starring toasted sesame seeds and the herb-and-spice mixture also called za'atar (the Arabic word for wild thyme).
Not only is it deliciously convivial, it puts one in the mood right away to order up some hummus or baba ghanoush to swipe the warm bread through, and – if you're so inclined – some drinks.
I always find it hard to decide what to sip at Zatar. The cocktails – particularly an Arak Chili Sour (arak, rum, pineapple juice, chile and sage) and La Vie-En-Rose (Hendrick's gin with a splash of Dolin Blanc vermouth and a spritz of rose water) – are thoughtfully mixed. But I love arak, the anise-flavored spirit much like French pastis or Turkish raki that you mix with water and ice before sipping.
Especially with meze, or small plates.
As Zatar's menu explains, "a typical Lebanese meal" consists of an array of meze, to be "shared family-style." If you do just that, forgetting about main courses, you're likely to eat pretty well. A wise strategy is to order in waves, just a few dishes at a time, lest everything land at once, as it did one evening despite my request to pace things out.
Among the cold meze, there's a lively muhammara – roasted red pepper-walnut dip zinged with pomegranate molasses – and a likable eggplant salad. Warak arish – grape leaves stuffed with savory rice – were clearly handmade, wonderfully seasoned.
Least exciting were probably the hummus – fine, but not as silky and flavorful as the dip is at its best – and the baba ghanoush, which wanted a little more seasoning.
If it's a Friday or Saturday night, you may be able to score a plate of kibbeh nayeh – beef tartare, Lebanese-style, shot through with cracked wheat, onion, mint and basil. Again, this could have used more seasoning; the herb flavor barely came through. If the mint that chef Moe Khazem was using was as limp as the leaves garnishing the plate, it's easy to see why.
Hot meze were more captivating. I enjoyed the beer-battered fried smelts, served with an underachieving tahini sauce, as well as the arnabeet – lemony, paprika-dusted fried cauliflower. There are crisp pastry "cigars" filled with melted feta and akkawi cheeses, flaky spinach-filled triangular pastries called fatayer and empanada-like sambousek pastries filled with nicely seasoned ground beef.
One of the most interesting was kibbet karaz – ground beef shells filled with a mix of chopped walnut, scallions and sour cherries.
Main courses were less successful. One of the house specialties, moghrabiyeh, turned out to be a flabby-skinned roasted chicken breast next to a mound of mushy Lebanese (pearl) couscous topped with nearly raw whole baby onions. I loved the spicing of an upside-down lamb pilaf, lightly sweet with raisins, but not the Uncle Ben's-like texture of the rice.
One main course I did enjoy: lamb mac and cheese, rich with lots of tender roasted shank. Served in a skillet, it's fun and original.
But generally, I didn't feel that whole part of the menu was working. Most of the dishes, such as pan-seared salmon with grapes, walnuts, labneh (Lebanese yogurt) and balsamic reduction, just didn't sound appetizing. One that did sound good – cheese and sujuk (Lebanese sausage) flatbread – was pallid and underbaked, topped with cold cubes of unmelted akkawi cheese, and so salty we couldn't eat it. Meanwhile, the inclusion of so many wraps and a burger seemed out of whack for a place that doesn't serve lunch. Perhaps when the restaurant begins serving brunch (Mansour plans that beginning March 25), that will make more sense.
Still, there's plenty to love at Zatar – so much that I wish I could give it a higher star rating.
Particularly wonderful is the warm hospitality, all too rare in this town. A restaurant featuring this style of grazing, plus drinks and even an adjacent hookah room, seems so right for Deep Ellum; you can wander in before or after a concert at the Bomb Factory or one of the clubs and nibble as much or little as you like. There's a bonus for vegans and vegetarians: 18 of the 23 meze and salads are vegetarian; most are vegan. Some of the desserts, like the ashta (rose-water-scented clotted cream) with toasted almonds and honey, were nice.
Why not just take the meze idea and run with it? Focus on making the small plates and flatbreads as good as possible, keep a few Lebanese desserts (the "signature" dessert involves chocolate cake that isn't even made in-house) and drop the rest? Sharpening the hummus, baba ghanoush and tahini game shouldn't be difficult, and it would be so worthwhile, given how lovely that freshly baked pita is.
But even if that doesn't happen, this sweet, engaging spot is definitely worth a visit.
Zatar Lebanese Tapas and Bar (2 stars)
Price: $$-$$$ (meze $6 to $14, main courses $16 to $26, burgers and wraps $9 to $12, desserts $6 to 12)
Service: Warm and friendly, if a bit slack when the owners aren't in the house
Ambience: A cheerful and stylish high-ceilinged dining room with comfortable booths on one side, and less comfortable seating elsewhere. A hookah room is adjacent. The music ranges from dance to Lebanese pop.
Best tables: The booths near the front. The dining room is so large, one can feel rattled around if seated in back toward the kitchen.
Noise level: It depends on how loud the music is being played and how full the room is. Can be a bit loud, but on most nights conversation isn't too difficult.
Location: Zatar Lebanese Tapas and Bar, 2825 Commerce St., Dallas; 972-863-7100
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with featured cocktails that are better than most, and a brief yet thoughtful wine list that includes eight Lebanese vintages, along with others from Europe and the West Coast.