When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Zabari Mediterranean Grill
Location: 3831 East Thunderbird Road, #3
Open: Since late April
Eats: Israeli and the greater region
Ever since London-based, Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi published his cookbook Jerusalem in 2012, Israeli food has been steadily taking hold in American cities. At Zabari Mediterranean Grill in north Phoenix, the eater quickly realizes that this is a good thing. Here, the Israeli eats are more traditional than the freewheeling Ottolenghi’s. But they can be just as good.
Yair Kapach owns Zabari. Its April 2017 opening was the realization of two dreams — his, and his mom’s. At Zabari, Doreen Maimran, Kapach’s mom, cooks from her own recipes. The eatery is kosher, one of the few in Phoenix to comply with the ancient set of dietary laws.
Kapach and Maimran came to the U.S. when Kapach was 12. They came from Petah Tikva, a city of 228,000 about 30 minutes east of Tel Aviv. They settled in north Jersey, pinballed down to Florida, and later came to the Valley of the Sun.
Though Maimran’s dishes originate 7,400 miles away, they don’t stray far from the familiar. You will find many of your Middle Eastern classics that exist beyond Israel's borders, but also a few dishes that are specific to the country. Whether Israeli or more broadly regional, the food at Zabari often reaches unexpectedly bright, fresh heights.
Falafel are a homerun, 10 out of 10 perfect. Spheres have a deep mahogany crust on the outside (crisp), with an interior that approaches a mashed potato level of softness. Maimran soaks garbanzos, chops and mixes them with spices, and shapes falafel balls by hand. A heady dose of parsley imparts a shade of green. Dipped in tahini, they remind you why people can be so nuts about falafel.
You can score a plate of falafel for a paltry $6.
One would expect hummus to be pretty stellar at an Israeli restaurant, and Zabari satisfies your hopes and then some. This hummus is a dense take divined from crushed garbanzos, a deep well scooped from a middle spilling olive oil over the sides. That olive oil — and a strong current of salt — let the garbanzos express fresh, vegetal flavor notes in what seems like a new way.
Baba ganoush also tastes somewhat novel. Zabari’s version is minimally smoky, which allows the cool dip to bring maximal eggplant flavor. Whole eggplants are roasted over an open flame, peeled and scooped, blended, and taken to high creaminess with mayo. You can taste some garlic and salt, alongside faint smoke and perfumey eggplant. And you can't get enough on your pita.
A mixed grill plate provides the best one-dish tour of Zabari. That dish comes with three salads, two scoops of sticky rice the color of buttered popcorn, and a pile of four meats.
Long slashes of thin-sliced chicken breast are solid. So are hunks of grilled steak, saturated with juices. Better still are dusky beef kebabs, grilled from ground meat mixed with garlic, paprika, peppers, and other flavorings, shaped into cigars, and cooked.
Shawarma is the platter’s highlight. For this, Kapach alternates sliding both chicken and turkey thighs onto a skewer. Between the whole thighs go slices of lamb fat. Loaded skewers spin before a vertical broiler, which browns, crisps, and makes dripping rain. Kapach cooks 50 to 60 pounds of shawarma a day.
Lamb fat brings out the deepest, most intense flavors of the poultry, almost the way a sudden smell can dredge up a vanished memory.
Salads lift the various meats. A standard Israeli salad of chopped tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, and lemon vinaigrette brought levity to all that juiciness, umami, and char. So did a dipping sauce called amba, made from pickled mango, turmeric, and red peppers.
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Zabari does some Moroccan-influenced dishes, such as fish and matbucha (a cooked, cold tomato salad with roasted red peppers). Sadly, my stomach has finite space. I will be back to try that.
End lunch or dinner with baklava, another classic. Maimran’s version, enlivened with syrup once the phyllo rolls emerge from the oven, is simple and elegant.
The tart, fruit-loaded freshness of amba together with the soulful chicken shawarma hit a surprising high note. It showcases the potential of Israeli cuisine, and speaks in flavor as to why family and progressive takes on Israeli eats are sweeping the country. We're lucky to have this new addition here in Phoenix.