It seems like Latham has become one of the hotspots for interesting restaurants lately, and I can’t decide if that’s just because there’s a lot of turnover or if rapid development in the area is finally pushing the culinary scene beyond burger joints. Either way, I was excited to hear about the opening of Zaitoon Kitchen this summer right down the street from Ala Shanghai (my favorite Chinese restaurant in the region) and the Tipsy Moose and Celadon Thai.
Zaitoon Kitchen promised to bring some new flavors from Afghanistan and the Mediterranean to Latham, and the menu looked really promising. Beyond kebabs and naan wraps and the normal Mediterranean fare, there were also some unique appetizers like meat dumplings and squash or eggplant dishes. The website stresses the cage-free, halal aspects of the meat offerings.
I heard some rave reviews of the restaurant in its first few months, and finally decided it was time to check out the hype for myself. After seeing a few photos of the mantu (meat dumplings), I knew that had to be our first stop on the menu.
While this may just look like a plate of sauce and vegetables, there were six dumplings buried at the bottom. They were like steamed wontons with a beef and onion filling, with a nice soft consistency. The topping was a mix of two sauces: a white “spin sauce” that appears to be a staple product of the establishment, and is also bottled and sold at local Price Choppers, and a red sauce that we couldn’t quite identify. There was also a mix of vegetables on top, which included carrots, peas, beans, and corn. I liked the spin sauce, which had a nice tart creaminess. The red sauce, on the other hand, was a bit oily and off-putting, plus there was just SO much soupiness with the two of them combined. I also wasn’t crazy about the vegetables – something about this mix just makes me think of frozen mixed vegetable packages and seems a little cheap. But overall we liked the taste of the dumplings and thought this was an interesting dish.
We also tried a small hummus plate with sliced naan wedges, which was decent (but not incredible). The hummus was creamy and mildly seasoned; the naan was basic and slightly on the dense side.
For the larger dishes on the menu, you first choose a protein (falafel or beef/lamb/chicken kebabs or kofta – a sort of ground meat patty). You can then choose to have your meal as a rice plate, a naan wrap, or on top of salad. I like the ability to customize here, and the portion sizes were very generous. The rice plate also came with a small salad and some naan on the side, so it is a good choice if you want to try a little bit of everything.
But let’s talk about the falafel. A couple of people have told me it’s their favorite in the Capital District. And a lot of that is personal preference, of course. I like falafel that has a good crispy fried edge, some interesting textural contrast, and assertive seasoning. It shouldn’t be too oily, and it shouldn’t be falling apart.
I had very high expectations for the falafel at Zaitoon Kitchen and I left feeling underwhelmed. They were definitely nice and crispy, but the interior was very grainy and unexciting. I felt like they were lacking some salt or other spices to add more depth to the flavor. They were fine, especially when paired with the spin sauce or the salad dressing, but by themselves they had very quiet flavors.
In general I felt this way about a lot of the food we sampled at Zaitoon – dishes were on the mild side and didn’t blow me away. The sauce elements were strong, especially in regards to the spin sauce (which will likely do well as a bottled product). The menu has a lot of unique items as well as classic Mediterranean favorites, and the prices are a really great value considering how much they pack the plates with food. A bite of lamb I tried from a friend’s kebab wrap was wonderfully tender and well marinated, so I’m thinking the meat dishes might be the way to go here. And it seems like a great place to go for a quick, casual bite.
But I couldn’t keep myself from comparing the Mediterranean dishes to those of the other new place in the region – Kismet in Albany. I definitely prefer Kismet’s hummus and pita and seasoning in general (with lots more garlic and spices). One thing that would make me eager to return is if Zaitoon would embrace more of its Afghan cuisine. Things like the mantu dumplings were really different and interesting and could help set this place apart.