Zaitooni Deli isn’t the best known eatery in trendy Red Bank. It isn’t the spot where the day-trippers congregate or the nightlife stalwarts fuel up before preparing to rock till last-call. It isn’t located on one of the main drags or near the two, always-crowded, live-performance theaters (Count Basie and Two River).
It isn’t on the radar of the scenesters, in other words. It’s loved, for the most part, by the local culinary cognoscenti because of proprietor Laudy Hage and her deeply soulful, authentic Middle-Eastern food.
With a Lebanese bent and a devotion to tradition, Hage spoons forth the region’s best baba ghanouj—its eggplant smoked and mashed with the perfect proportion of tahini, garlic and fresh lemon juice—and a humus rich with slow-cooked chickpeas and judicious hits of the same tahini, garlic and lemon.
She advises on the virtues of the light spanakopita—phyllo-wrapped spinach pie—versus one of her heartier baked pies of beef, lamb, cheese or spinach, encased in a homemade dough. She creates tabbouleh—proper Lebanese tabbouleh, I should say—in which parsley, parsley and more parsley is the star of this salad. It is merely flecked with cracked wheat and dotted with tiny cubes of tomatoes, onions and scallions. Is there a smidgen of mint in there? Yes, say fans of Zaitooni. This time of year, the mint tastes particularly vibrant in the tabbouleh.
A side-street hideaway for the financial advisers, who work at the big-bank firms in Red Bank, Zaitooni’s faithful know exactly what to order at the tiny bistro: string beans, hand-sliced, long-cooked and topped with more sauteed onions than anyone else would dare, but spot-on; lentils, so creamy their texture is best described as plush, scented with warming spices and slivers of onions; and stuffed grape leaves, filled with a mix of brown rice, studded with tomatoes and onions.
Do try the moussaka, here its a layering of ground beef, eggplant, potato and a cheese-egg custard topping. It’s not your local diner’s moussaka, for sure. And when you see the kibbee on the counter, rejoice, for these torpedoes of beef baked with bulgur, pine nuts and onions are identical to those you’d find in the kitchen of the best cook in Beirut.
One last tip: basterma. Laudy Hage sources the best basterma (often spelled basturma). It’s cured, air-dried sliced beef, not shy of spice and far feistier than the cured pork products that come from Italy and Spain. One bite, and you may think prosciutto is for the timid.
Zaitooni Deli, 11 Mechanic Street in Red Bank. 732-842-4400. zaitoonideli.com. Open Monday through Thursday, 11 am to 6 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am to 8 pm.Click here to leave a comment