The word “authenticity” travels with a lot of baggage these days. As American food writers struggle to respectfully describe dishes and cuisines that hail from other cultures and locales, they increasingly ask themselves (and readers) what authenticity means—and who gets to decide what is or isn’t authentic.
For chef Samer Zeitoun of the newly opened Zenola in Vienna, authenticity looks less like an exact replica of the food he grew up with in Lebanon and more like a blend of Mediterranean flavors heavily inspired not only by Lebanon, but also Morocco, France and Italy. After all, he can’t ignore the 27 years he spent as head of the kitchen at Cafe Paradiso, an Italian restaurant in Woodley Park that was a joint venture between Zeitoun and his five brothers.
Like Cafe Paradiso, Zenola is also a family affair. Zeitoun’s wife, Ragheda, spends time in the kitchen daily, making dishes like stuffed grape leaves, spinach pies and loubieh, green beans simmered with tomatoes, onions and garlic. The restaurant’s name hails from the first two letters of each of their daughters’ names—Zeina, Noha and Lara. Two live with their parents in Vienna and work in the restaurant, while the third helps out from New York. The family’s last name, by the way, means “olive” in Arabic.
Regarding the liberties he takes with the food of his homeland, he rightly points out that you’d be hard-pressed to find a chef who can resist putting their own spin on the food they make.
“It’s hard to get it 100% how we cook it in Lebanon,” he says. “And even if I cook Lebanese food, I put my own touch on it. It’s the same with chefs in Lebanon.”
This blending of cultures is the very reason my Lebanese-American dining partner declares, “My mother would love this place. My father would hate it.” If her father is looking for “authentic Lebanese cuisine,” he won’t find a whole lot of it here. But my friend picks up on nearby diners speaking Arabic, so there are clearly people like her mother who are open to Zeitoun’s modern interpretations of traditional flavors.
That table orders kibbeh, and so do we. What lands on the table are miniature versions of the football-shaped appetizer we’re used to. Can Zeitoun really have created tiny replicas of what some consider Lebanon’s national dish, complete with the traditional stuffing of meat, pine nuts and spices? And if so, why?
“We thought they were very cute,” says daughter Noha Zeitoun, who helps manage the restaurant. “They’re harder to make bite-sized, but they start a conversation.”
They do, indeed. We are all happy with the flavors and the clever way there is still a discernible stuffing despite their diminutive size, but we are split over the lack of crispiness, which might be a result of the pomegranate molasses on the plate. Ultimately, we like it, but we like other appetizers more. Roasted cauliflower and a quail egg atop celeriac puree has one tablemate exclaiming that it’s the best version of the veg she’s ever had. Tender wood-grilled octopus shows off the chef’s experience with the persnickety protein, and we use it to swipe up the accompanying chickpeas and harissa.
Dips served with warm pita can be ordered individually or as a trio. Three stand out from the pack: the silky labneh, a traditional strained yogurt spread boosted here by za’atar and olive paste; roasted eggplant dotted with chopped dates, marcona almonds, feta and pomegranate seeds; and the muhammara, made bright and sweet with roasted red pepper.
Stuffed grape leaves are made by Ragheda in the traditional way—small, tightly rolled and tangy with lemon. Her spinach pies during one lunch service had the taste and texture of being reheated unsuccessfully, with cold spots and chewy dough. It’s a problem that can be fixed with some tinkering and care. If you’re looking for something fresh and green, the chicory salad is an outstanding toss of cured manchego, pear, endive, Jamón ibérico and a sherry vinaigrette.
The bone-in American lamb shoulder infused with Moroccan and Middle Eastern spices is tender, rich and comforting, the kind of dish that makes you glad you decided to venture out on a blustery winter day. That luscious tenderness comes from spending more than two hours in the oven. (The beans it’s served with, however, could have spent a bit more time on the stove.)
While lamb is an obvious choice at a Lebanese-ish restaurant, consider the Amish chicken cooked in a 900-degree oven to seal in the juices. A bit of duck fat to crisp up the skin and a rosemary cream sauce don’t hurt, either. Deboned quail bathing in a Moroccan-inspired sauce of fresh ginger and truffle butter is another hit with the table.
If you’re looking for a lighter entree, opt for the scallops over the fine yet fairly boring Dover sole or the stuffed baby eggplant that fails to showcase the main ingredient. The nicely cooked scallops are served with a grapefruit salad that serves as a great counterpoint to the subtle, creamy bivalve.
The diner who always leaves room for dessert will be richly rewarded at Zenola. Among the four enders, also made by Ragheda, the ismailiyah is an alluring layering of crunchy, shredded phyllo, thickened cream, crushed pistachios and rosewater-scented simple syrup, garnished with candied rose petals. Pistachio cheesecake is no less habit-forming, ingeniously employing dates to stand in for the crust—which not only makes it gluten-free but also extra delicious.
Zeitoun confirms that the perfect chocolate hazelnut cream cake is more authentically Italian than Lebanese. But in the Zeitouns’ capable hands, it can be both.
★ ★ ☆ ☆
This strip mall mom and pop shop serves modern Mediterranean flavors in a gorgeous dining room filled with cobalt-hued chairs, comfy golden banquettes and marble tabletops.
Roasted cauliflower over celeriac puree; a trio of spreads including labneh, muhammara and roasted eggplant; chicken with rosemary cream sauce; ismailiyah // 132 Branch Road SE, Vienna; Open daily for lunch and dinner; Starters: $9-$18; Entrees: $26-$38