When we first moved to the UAE some years ago, we originally lived in the Garden City of Al Ain. This was both a blessing and curse, for the city is a wonderful place to raise children (plenty of parks and outside space) but not so ideal for those in search of nightlife. In fact, despite the cities cultural significance and picturesque nature, there’s very little in terms of dining destinations. Even when taking into account the few five star hotels.
During our two year stint in Al Ain, Zaytinya was probably our favorite place to dine. A Lebanese restaurant that treads a fine balance between casual and fine dining, while still pertaining to great value for money. In the years since moving to Abu Dhabi we had almost forgotten about the charms of this Middle Eastern concept, until we received an invitation to try their Abu Dhabi branch.
Situated on the upper level of Al Seef Village Mall (close to Khalifa Park), Zaytinya isn’t typical of mall dining. The glass facade hides an intimate space of comfortable leather booths and a distinct colour scheme of complementing silvers, purples and turquoise. The restaurant seems a lot more formal than its counterpart in Al Ain and lacks some of the warmth and homeliness that we associated with that location.
Speaking of homeliness, this is the feeling that Zaytinya is trying to promote. A place where families can gather to share Levantine dishes. Plates that are of a very good quality, for the reasonably low price point and judging by steady stream of local clientele during our lunchtime tasting. It’s a concept that certainly seems to work.
Living in the Middle East there’s no shortage of Arabic food, although that doesn’t always necessitate to quality. The menu at Zaytinya offers absolutely no surprises and sticks firmly to the Lebanese classics of mezze, grills, salads and juices and while not breaking the mold in terms of presentation or concept, the quality and consistency is good.
All meals at Zaytinya begin with a basket of freshly baked Arabic bread. These ‘pillows’ of warm dough were one of the most memorable aspects of our visit to the Al Ain branch over three years ago and remains unchanged in the capital. As lovers of baked goods and all things bread, it’s nice to discover that these items are made in house and accompanied by a delicious zaatar dip.
Despite feeling someone on display (we were constantly being watched) our waiter was efficient, attentive and offered some helpful recommendations when it came to the orders. Having traveled extensively in the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Oman) we already knew which dishes we liked and how they should be prepared, so our choices felt natural and we expected no surprises.
From the cold mezze we selected Fattoush, the staple salad of any Lebanese table and one that is classically prepared here at Zaytinya, with diced tomato, cucumber, fresh herbs, olive oil and toasted Arabic bread. A common problem with fattoush can be the overwhelming amount of dressing. This wasn’t the case, with just the right amount of the vinegar and pomegranate dressing to add a little flavour to the base ingredients (which were arguably a little mint heavy). Skipping the usual tabbouleh, moutabal and falafel in favour of the enticing hot mezze selection. Our favourite was the relatively simple Grilled Haloumi. Serving large chunks of the salted cheese, lightly grilled to provide hints of additional colour and texture
Working our way through even more bread (we just couldn’t resist), we thought it was only fair to see how Zaytinya’s hummus faired against their competitors. Hummus is a strange one, in the fact that everyone knows somewhere that serves the best version of this chickpea staple. The Hummus Shawarma at Zaytinya is up there with the best of them, offering generous portions and flavours of spiced warm chicken to complement the smooth, cool hummus.
As our table was filled with yet more bread, this time a Mixed Manakish of cheese and zaatar and additional Meat Sambusek . We felt our eyes may have been bigger than out stomachs and we may have slightly over-ordered. The Manakish itself was ridiculously large and packed full of flavour from the thyme based zataar. While the sambusek (a traditional Arabic savory pastry) were well seasoned and beautifully crisp.
We felt beaten without having ventured into the mains courses and opted to take a few minutes break from the onslaught of food. This moment of retrospection seemed an apt time to admire the restaurants design, with its light and airy interiors and geometric light fittings. Casting abstract shadow patterns across the pristine ceiling. Zaytinya also features an outside terrace of dazzling white mashrabiya in perfect complement to the Arabic nature of the cuisine. Islamic style archways are integrated into the windows and despite the view only being of the mall, Zaytinya offers a pleasant place to be in the cooler months
Following the pattern of the mezze, our mains arrived in quick succession. Seemingly in a bid to get all of the dishes onto the table at the same time. Although we completely understand the reasoning behind this, a slightly slower pace to the food delivery would be appreciated. Mixed Grill is always our go-to choice when it comes to Arabic food and the version at Zaytinya offers four skewers – shish taouk, lamb cubes, kafta lahm and kafta dajaj. The freshly grilled meats were both succulent and nicely spiced and served with Arayes (stuffed Arabic bread) and golden French fries.
The mixed grill was more than enough for us but management insisted we also try the Lamb Chops. Seen to be one of Zaytinya’s most popular dishes this may have been a mistake on their part, as we found it to be wholly underwhelming. The meat was tough (overcooked) and severely lacking in flavour and is the only dish from our tasting that we wouldn’t choose to order again. It’s a shame as everything else was of much better quality. Though we would suggest you stick to the mezze as they’re the better items on this menu.
During out time in the Middle East we’ve come to love Arabic desserts, granted it took us a little bit of time. Zaytinya offer only five on their menu and we thought it best to stick to the most popular choices – Umm Ali and Zaytinya Kunafa. The Kanufa was the better of the two, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar syrup and topped with pistachios. The long threads of khishnah pastry may give the appearance of a birds nest and the idea of eating cheese for dessert may be too much for some but give it a try and we think you’ll agree that it’s a winning combination. Though no experts in Kunafa, the version at Zaytinya has further cemented our love for the dish and is something that we would gleefully return for on an other occasion.
The Umm Ali, a national dish of Egypt, was not quite as good. Similar to a hot bread pudding with flaky pastry, nuts and raisins. The Umm Ali here was slightly lacking in consistency and seemed more like a porridge than the dessert that we have come to love, being far too milky and not quite sweet enough.
Overall, Zaytinya continues to impress and it’s easy to see why it’s an award winning Arabic restaurant. Portions are overly generous, it’s exceptionally family friendly and the fresh nature of the produce and the fact that everything’s made fresh in house, make Zaytinya an obvious choice.
Coming to us from the Purple Honey Group, the team behind Biryani Pot and our favourite restaurant Tamba. Zaytinya also offer one of the best value brunches in the city. Running from 12pm – 4pm and offering both buffet and live-cooking. The prices are ridiculously low at just AED 95 for adults and AED 35 for children and better still, no pesky hotel taxes.
We were invited to dine at Zaytinya. All views are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE.