Zaytoon hews to slow food principles

by Brian Clarey

Workaday lunch types want just a few things out of their alloted 45-minute break for the midday meal: It’s got to be hot (unless warm weather suggests a cold lunch); it’s got to be cheap because, let’s face it, the numbers add up after a five-day workweek and also because everybody loves a cheap lunch no matter how big their bankroll; and it’s got to be tasty because for many, many office drones lunch is the apogee of their nine-hour day. They talk about it all morning, debate their options and settle on a place only after much deliberation. And a good lunch can get the tongues in the cubicle farm wagging for weeks.

Smart money says that the office hens have been clucking about Zaytoon, on the first floor of the US Trust Center building on North Elm Street, since the place opened for business in the spring. Not only have owners Massoud and Annah Awartani nailed down the hot/fast/cheap paradigm, they have added elements of convenience and salubriousness to the equation.

The cuisine is Mediterranean, more or less, and adheres to the principles of slow food – local, natural and organic – with culinary value judgments like abstinence from MSG, hormone-treated meats and trans fats; the use of organic butter and organic, locally-grown produce when available; and a stubborn dedication to cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil.

The slate of appetizers, entrées, sandwiches, wraps and salads certainly showcases Mediterranean flair, with items like house-made hummus, baba ghanouj, spanikopita and falafel making up a predictable and delicious backbone. But they also have harder-to-find delicacies like labneh, shawirma, taboule and portokali salad. Even the turkey wrap owes more to the Anatolian Peninsula than the bird that says, “Gobble gobble,” ensconced as it is in a whole-wheat flatbread with walnut pesto and Lebanese pickles.

The smells from the kitchen permeate the lobby of the US Trust building, enticing people from the moment they get off the elevators and surely causing the mouth of the lone security guard near the door to water as the hour approaches noon.

The clientele in this office-building dining room is a good cross-section of downtown Greensboro: lunchtime moms with small herds of younglings share the floor with the working stiffs and the few fortunate souls who seem to have their weekday daytime hours to themselves, enough so to dawdle for an hour or so over a plate of fava beans and tahini.

This is so because, for one, the place is well-appointed enough to make a man forget that he’s on the ground floor of a 12-story office building, with walls painted slate blue and saffron yellow with a recurring green floral motif. Local art hangs year-round, with a colorful exhibition by our friend Cass Catlett gracing them on my visit.

For another, the Awartanis’ commitment to quality ingredients produces exceptional lunchtime fare.

For me on this day it’s the chicken shawirma, the pieces of hormone-free bird marinated and spiced with exotic authenticity, the romaine lettuce still cold and crisp under the tahini sauce and wilted sumac, the pickles lending a vinegary countervoice to the proceedings.

It’s something of a masterpiece. And when paired with a wedge of whole-wheat pita, a small cup of homemade hummus and a bag of chips, it’s quite a filling repast.

If you’ve room, they offer a range of traditional pastries including both walnut and cheese baklava as well as nablus konafa, a sweet cheese and wheat dish I’ve never heard of but which I plan to sample on my next visit.

They also have an assortment of packaged salads and cold dishes which can be carted back to the office and used to incite jealousy in all of your coworkers who scarfed down burgers and fries at their desks during your own 45-minute Mediterranean vacation.

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