Au Za'atar's Middle Eastern is a Winner

The Vegetarian Option

Dining out meat-free.

Au Za'atar's vibrant, flavorful Mediterranean mezze are beautifully presented and made with care. [Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

Au Za'atar, a so-called "Arabian French bistro," opened on Avenue A last month to unusually high fanfare for a casual Middle Eastern restaurant. The menu, spanning kebabs and couscous to a whole range of mezze, doesn't tread much new territory, but Au Za'atar is something of a treasure box, turning out reliably more delicious versions of these standards that stand far apart from the pack.

Things get off to a promising start with a generous platter of Au Za'atar's complimentary Za'atar-Dusted Pita: warm, yeasty and chewy, the excellent bread has tons of flavor from its eponymous spice mixture of dried thyme, ground sumac and sesame seeds, and is served with a dollop of cool, smooth, tangy labneh, or thick strained yogurt.

Arnabeet Mekle, or fried marinated cauliflower ($7), is bright and flavorful, the greaseless and nicely browned florets tossed in a piquant dressing heavy on spicy raw garlic, fragrant fresh cilantro, and plenty of lemon juice.

Fassoulia, or Middle Eastern-style beans ($8), varies in preparation from country to country: sometimes it's made with white beans, other times green; it can be dressed with lemon and olive oil or stewed in beef broth. Au Za'atar's take is a hearty lima bean stew, the huge, creamy beans braised in a thick, rich tomato sauce slick with fruity olive oil and flecked with fresh parsley.

Pickled fruits and vegetables are integral to Middle Eastern cuisine, and are well-represented at Au Za'atar. Batin Jan Makdous, or tiny pickled eggplants ($8), are sweet and vinegary at the same time, their creamy flesh stuffed with spicy pickled red pepper and soft walnuts. Excellent crunchy cucumber pickles on the side add one more hit of brine.

Au Za'atar offers not just one but five types of vegetarian Stuffed Vegetables: bell peppers, grape leaves, eggplant, zucchini and cabbage. The latter option ($12) arrives as six tender, almost translucent cabbage leaves wrapped tightly around a light tomato-and-rice filling that sparkles with lemon and fresh dill. A well-seasoned chopped salad served on the side doesn't disappoint either, even when it's made with out-of-season vegetables.

This is the kind of food that has you craving more before your plate is half empty. If there's any better sign of a restaurant's quality, you tell us.