Singing a Different 'Toon 

Zaytoon Spices Up Alberta

You're probably sick of even hearing about Alberta Street—and yet, if you're at all a fan of Portland food, you can't ignore it. New restaurants are opening there at what feels like a daily clip (there are now FOUR Thai places in a half-mile stretch), and many are worth talking about, if not necessarily dining in.

Zaytoon is a new spot you should actually plan to patronize. It fills Alberta's desperate need for another place to drink, and it does so with a lot of class and minimal pretension. For example, despite the fact that the swanky joint looks like it cost a million bucks to put together, you can still enjoy a cigarette (a rapidly vanishing public indoor pursuit) and a game of pool in their large upstairs lounge area. Likewise, you can get a great drink, like the Metrosexual (a cosmo made with Maker's), and top-shelf vodkas, but they also serve Pabst and Iron City beer for cheap. Zaytoon calls itself "a new kind of bar," which translates to a place the size of a big restaurant with a lot of seating, but with the vibe of a bar: it's dimly lit, you'd feel kind of stupid not drinking there, and the food selection is minimal, hearty, and affordable.

The menu is made up of Arabic food, which basically means what you're used to eating in Mediterranean restaurants like Nicholas or La Villa. The name ("Zaytoon"... let's just skip making fun of it) means "olives" in Arabic, which is fitting since olives appear heavily on the menu. Probably the most popular item at Zaytoon is their mezza platter, wherein you choose three appetizers for $10. Each appetizer is well conceived and delicious, and should easily slow down your stomach's alcohol absorption. One of my favorite items is the lebne, a thick yogurt cream cheese you spread liberally on Zaytoon's incredibly fresh, thick, warm pita. The lebne shouldn't be confused with the equally delicious laban, a tasty yogurt sauce blended with cucumber, garlic, and mint, likewise served with pita. Also worth trying are their lemony hummus, their assorted olives, and the smoky, garlic-heavy eggplant and olive tapenade. However, the votes are split on the zaatar, a gritty blend of sesame seeds and oregano bathed in olive oil and served with bread. I think it's just all right, while other people I know either love it or hate it.

Main dishes include a selection of sandwiches served on fresh chewy rolls, like the grilled eggplant topped with mint leaves and feta, the intriguingly seasoned Painted Hills beef burger, and a chicken breast sandwich crusted with the debatable zaatar. Zaytoon also offers two dishes that basically amount to flavorful mounds of rice and beans: the timman u marag (chickpeas stewed with onion, garlic, tomatoes, spices, and olive oil over rice); and Iman's Mjadra (brown lentils over basmati rice topped with caramelized onions, toasted almonds, and pine nuts). Good stuff, if not culinary genius.

Really though, Zaytoon is more a pleasant space to hang in than a place to stuff yourself silly. The food has a little kick, imbued with a lot of crisp flavors like lemon, garlic, feta, and yogurt—but it's not going to break your bank or your palate. It's nice that in becoming a "new kind of bar," Zaytoon has implemented a new kind of bar food.

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