Hummus, babaganoush, falafel, kebabs. Hummus, babaganoush, falafel, kebabs. Most of Long Island’s Middle Eastern menus are an endless loop of these dishes. And while all four can be superb, they represent a tiny portion of the repertoire of the region.
At Beit Zaytoon, you will find so much more. This two-month-old West Hempstead spot has at least two things that distinguish it from the crowd. One, it serves the food of Lebanon. Two, it is owned by Elias Ghafary who, from 1991 until 2019 presided over Al Bustan, the first restaurant in Manhattan to serve Middle Eastern cuisine in a fine-dining setting. (And, he brought Al Bustan's chef, Carlos Bravo, with him.)
Yes, you’ll find hummus and babaganoush, and you won’t find better renditions on Long Island. They are joined by a third dip, mouhamara, a savory paste of roasted red peppers, walnuts, garlic and cumin. Falafel approach the size of baseballs; kebabs are threaded with chicken, kafta (ground lamb) or cubes of filet mignon.
But you’ll also find scores of dishes that may change the way you think about Middle Eastern food. Kibbe naye (lamb tartare), for example, served with scallions, mint and wedges of white onion. Or kibbe saniye, a sort of sandwich whose "bread" is a mixture of baked lamb and bulgur that is filled with morsels of sauteed lamb. There are two mind-blowing stews: Mouloukhia is a leafy green vegetable (jute mallow, to be exact) that, here, is cooked with big chunks of chicken. Bamia combines whole okra and lamb in a tomato sauce.
Beit Zaytoon makes its own sausages, both sujuk (spicy beef) and makanek (tiny lamb links). They are joined on the hot-appetizer roster by chicken livers sauced with pomegranate, fried potato cubes with garlic, cilantro and chili (batata harra) and that wonderful hummus topped with minced lamb.
There is much more to explore.
Ghafary, born in Tyre, Lebanon, started working in restaurants when he was 14 years old. He received a four-year diploma from a Swiss-run culinary school in Beirut and was looking forward to a culinary career in the Lebanese capital when war broke out the following year, 1975. He fled to Paris where he worked in two high-end Lebanese restaurants, eventually making the shift from cooking to serving to managing.
In 1987 he made his first visit to New York and was appalled at the state of Lebanese food here. A year later, he opened a branch of Al Amir on the Upper West Side with two partners and, in 1991, he opened Al Bustan on Third Avenue in Midtown.
Unlike at Al Bustan, which closed in 2019, the décor at Beit Zaytoon is casual, the menu is takeout friendly and diners who wish to accompany their meals with wine must bring their own bottles. But the artistry is there in every plate that comes out of Ghafary's kitchen.
Beit Zaytoon, 468 Hempstead Tpke., West Hempstead, 516-483-3941, beitzaytoon.com. Open noon to 9 p.m. daily except Sunday, when hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.