North Africa and the Levant conjure up a kind of romance not often found in New York. Au Za’atar in the East Village is a welcome exception, and a great destination for a low-key date night. Grab a sidewalk seat, or head inside to a room done up in rustic wood and brick, with a little candlelight glow. The menu is built for sharing, and with influences running from Tunisia to Morocco to Cyprus, you and your date will want to taste your way across the region.
The kitchen at Au Za’atar is centered on French-accented family recipes from Lebanon, so follow tradition and start with mezze, mixing and matching your way through house-made baba ganoush, hummus, and kebbe kras, a beef and bulgur blend that’s the national dish of Lebanon. If your mood is classic, the chefs hook up well-executed versions of bistro mains like steak frites. For more adventurous moods there are delights like lamb shank in Armagnac prune sauce and char-grilled lamb chops marinated in namesake spice za’atar.
The beverage program both plays along (vintages from Morocco and Lebanon) and goes against the grain (Abita and Lagunitas infiltrate the beer list). The dim space lends itself to lingering, which means take your time and order dessert. The French influence comes back in crepes, or you can broaden your horizons with mouhallabie, a Lebanese milk pudding with nuts and orange blossom syrup. Your Beirut holiday may have to be deferred this year, but at least in New York you can capture some of the taste.