Welcome to the first installment of Hidden Gems, a series that explores the overlooked and best-kept secrets of CT. I was inspired to write this series by my love for adventure. CT has thousands of amazing places to eat and drink, but it’s easy to fall into the routine of frequenting our favorites. So many times I find myself driving past the same restaurants that spark my curiosity, but they quickly become an afterthought, “One day I’ll try it,” or “But so-and-so at [insert your favorite coffee shop] knows my order by heart,” or worse… “What if the food sucks?”
We all know humans are creatures of habit, but this is how we miss out on discoveries. Take a break from your go-to takeout spot, and give something else a chance, you might just stumble upon a hidden gem.
Since Zaytoon’s Bistro opened in August of 2017, it has been on my list of places to try. Offering authentic Mediterranean fare, and dishes native to Lebanon and Morocco, I knew it would be a one-of-a-kind experience.
One cold winter afternoon, I decided to finally stop in and give it a try. When I first walked in, I was greeted by the owner Zainab Hayajneh, “Hello sweetie welcome, come warm-up. You here for lunch? Take any seat you’d like,” she said with a warm smile.
Owners Zainab and her husband Omar hail from Jordan, and their native culture is infused through the bistro. My eyes immediately land on the case full of baklava, and other treats. The air is full of rich spices, and middle eastern music echoes from the kitchen. They truly make you feel like you have stepped into their home from the moment you walk in.
I picked a cozy table by the window, and Zainab brought me a menu assuring me to ask questions or recommendations. Mediterranean cuisine is one of my all-time favorites, so naturally, I wanted everything on the menu.
Many of the dishes are inspired by the unique spices of their home country, as well as Lebanese and Moroccan cuisine. Between the gourmet selection of cold & hot appetizers, salads & soups, sandwiches, kebabs, and the “Taste of Lebanon” & “Taste of Morocco” section of the menu, my mouth was watering. I was in desperate need of some help.
Zainab recommended I try the Lebanese Salad so that I could try a little bit of everything. I ordered that and the lentil soup to start, and once my food arrived, I was in heaven.
The Lebanese salad is great to share, (or devour by yourself if you’re a serious eater like me). It includes tabbouleh, two stuffed grape leaves, two pieces of falafel, kebbeh, and hummus. I could not believe how fresh everything was. Forget the grape leaves from the can that are drenched in oil; these grape leaves were so light and homemade. The tabbouleh was packed with flavor, fresh mint, parsley, and onions. The falafel is huge and served to steam. Each warm, crunchy bite was packed with cilantro, sesame, and spice.
I’ve never tried Kebbeh before, and at first, I mistook it for a pointy shaped falafel, but I took a bite and realized it’s even better! It was stuffed with diced lamb, bulgar, onions, & pine nuts; the flavor was so complex I savored every bite and was truly sad once it was all gone. And last but not least…the hummus. The hummus at Zaytoon’s is the real deal people. It’s the perfect combination of tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. Creamy, and smooth, I couldn’t help but inhale it by the spoonful. I can never go back to having Sabra or store-bought hummus again.
The lentil soup was hearty and filling, with bits of carrots and a hint of turmeric. It must be eaten with fresh pita (you get a basket of it, and it’s amazing. Dip it in everything).
The soup was served piping hot, making it a perfect choice for a cold day.
Even though I was nearly stuffed, I had to order Tagine. Having traveled to Morocco and experienced the magic of this staple dish in a Berber village, I was curious to see how it compared. The menu offers lamb, shrimp, chicken and fish tagine. I opted for chicken, and even though I only had room for a couple of bites, I was so happy I gave it a try. The stew was a delicious blend of roasted vegetables, juicy chunks of chicken and the warming spices I remembered from Morocco. If you’ve never tried Tagine, I highly recommend this unique dish.
Zainab brought me a box for my leftovers, and smiled, “Do you have room for something sweet?” My food baby felt like it weighed 18 pounds, but how could I say no to this adorable woman?
A couple of minutes later she brought over a Turkish coffee, a piece of baklava and haresah, a cute little cake I had never seen before. “You must have something sweet,” she laughed. “It’s on the house,”
The baklava was heavenly, and truly some of the best I have ever had. The haresah is a honey-drenched cake made of semolina and topped with almonds. Sticky, but oh so delicious.
My afternoon at Zaytoon was unforgettable. I felt like I had been transported to another world. The authentic homemade dishes, middle eastern spices, and kind hospitality made for such a unique dining experience.
As I sipped my Turkish coffee, I overlooked the hustle and bustle of Park Road and imagined myself on Zaytoon’s patio during the summer with a table full of hummus and kebbeh, a bottle of wine, and a big fat smile on my face.
When you visit Zaytoon you’ll experience a taste of culture, and one of my favorite hidden gems.
165 Park Rd
West Hartford, CT
Open daily 7AM-9PM, 10 PM on Friday & Saturday. It offers BYOB, seasonal patio seating, take-out, a kids menu, desserts, and various dishes available for purchase by the pound.
For more information call (860) 937-5125