Nov. 18 2015 11:45 AM

Zaytoon Mediterranean

The incredible, edible eggplant
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with eggplant for more than half my life.

It was hate at first bite when, in the early 1970s, I popped a slice of fried eggplant into my gob. It was as slimy as a raw oyster but not nearly as tasty. The dominant flavor was cooking oil.

My next date with eggplant came a year later. I ordered the combo platter at a restaurant in Detroit’s Greektown. It came with moussaka. Only after I had devoured the moussaka was I told I had just wolfed down baked eggplant.

“Impossible,” I said. “This awful plant tastes this good?” And so it went. I grew my own eggplant but threw out most of it. As I saw it, the one redeeming quality of eggplant is that it is drop-dead gorgeous — its purple skin practically glowing, its beckoning, voluptuous shape … .

Right about now, somebody is thinking, “Geez, what a pervert. This dude has an eggplant fetish.”

As is customary in our age, my perversion will naturally spin throughout the social media universe, and I will be virally shamed and forced to go into hiding like that lion-killing dentist.

But not before I get a huge takeout order of baba ghanoush from Zaytoon Mediterranean. Exile will somehow be bearable with this culinary masterpiece at my side — courtesy of that sexy little thing called eggplant.

A fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant near the Lansing Mall, Zaytoon prides itself on scratch cooking with fresh ingredients. Two visits to Zaytoon convinced me that someone in the kitchen pays attention to quality — and quality control.

Let’s start with object of my affection: The baba ghanoush ($3.99 for a small portion) is died-and-gone-to-heaven delicious. Slather it on pita, or just eat it by the spoonful. It’s silky on the tongue. There are hints of cumin and fresh garlic, pronounced but not overpowering. And did I taste smoked paprika? Perhaps. The overall effect is a happy mystery: How do they transform a slimy eggplant into food for the gods? I haven’t a clue.

Zaytoon’s house specialty is the chicken shawarma ($8.99), and it does not disappoint. It’s slow-roasted, lightly spiced, smoky, crisp and tender. When it lands on your table, an aromatic bouquet rises up to greet you. It’s served with rice, hummus and slices of pita bread — generous portions all around.

On separate visits, we sampled grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb and rice ($7.99) and a Traditional Combo Platter ($9.99) that includes mujadara, a mix of rice, lentils and caramelized onions. The mujadara alone is worth the price of admission. The platter also comes with hummus and veggie-stuffed grape leaves. It’s an excellent mix of flavors and textures, enough to satisfy the discerning vegetarian’s palate.

On our final visit, we opted for a to-go order of baklava ($2.49). At home, we shared this honey-and-walnut confection made with the traditional ultra-thin layers of phyllo pastry. Baklava must be tricky to make. I’ve never tried. But I’ve tasted a number of these pastries. My usual beef is that it is often too sweet and too dense. Zaytoon’s baklava strikes a fine balance between the richness of the nuts and honey with the lightness of the phyllo.

Among the foods we sampled, the least stellar was crushed lentil soup ($2.99). “Crushed” should be translated as pureed. I wanted more heft to this soup, in the form of chunks or bits.

To the Western ear, Zaytoon sounds like a made up word. Actually, it’s the Arabic word for olive. (Two olives replace the two Os in Zaytoon on the restaurant’s logo). Olives and olive oil-infused choices permeate the menu.

Ordering meals requires grabbing a menu and ordering at the L-shaped counter. For dine-in patrons, you find a seat and the servers bring the food out to your table. Zaytoon does a heckuva takeout business, based on our observations. The place clearly has a sizable following among those on their way home.

The service is impressive, both in the prompt delivery of meals and on the friendliness scale. They don’t fawn over customers but are polite and helpful. On our first visit, we asked the server to identity one item on the combo platter. It looked and tasted like a cabbage roll, but we figured it had an Arabic name.

He didn’t know what it was, but dashed to the kitchen and returned with the answer.

“Cabbage roll,” he said with a chuckle.

Zaytoon’s decor is spare but inviting. Noteworthy are the lamps, adorned with metallic leaves and tendrils. With a little imagination, one can almost see an olive drooping from a vine. Or an eggplant.

Leftovers for Days

Let’s get the bad news out of the way — the hummus at Zaytoon Mediterranean isn’t very good. An integral part of hummus is tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds. Unfortunately, the hummus at Zaytoon doesn’t have the telltale depth of flavor that typically comes with tahini.

That is my complaint. My only one.

I have heard rumblings about the food at Zaytoon since it opened a few years back. But gone are the days when my allowance burned a hole in my pocket until I could get to Mervyn’s. So, aside from my weekly trip to Horrocks, not much lures me to the west side anymore. With the tales of fantastic chicken shawarma ringing in my ears — and, of course, this assignment from my editor — I picked up takeout late one weeknight. I ordered the shawarma platter for two ($19.99) with extra falafel ($1.99), and the cashier handed me approximately one metric ton of food. Then, of course, the fiancé sent me a text saying that he was going to have dinner with a friend. So I went home, put on my stretch pants and dove in.

The shawarma platter for two will definitely feed two people, even if those two people are Andre the Giant-sized eaters. Rice with vermicelli noodles is piled high with tender, fragrant pieces of chicken spiced with Middle Eastern flavors like cumin, garlic, turmeric and paprika. The aroma alone is enough to convince any hesitant eater to give shawarma a try.

I know you’re out there, people who are intimidated by international food. Sure, it’s confusing to see unfamiliar words on a menu and fear that you might pronounce them wrong and accidentally end up with a pig foot on your plate. (It happened to me. In France. Where I, allegedly, speak the language.) But chicken shawarma is entry-level Middle Eastern food, and the ingredients and flavors are familiar to American palates. If you are thinking about dipping a toe in, shawarma is a great place to start.

We returned the next week and ordered the Toon for Two ($29.99), a veritable feast comprising kabobs of grilled chicken and beef, shish kafta, chicken shawarma, fried kibbe, rice, vegetables, grape leaves, hummus and a choice of soup or salad. The generous portions provided enough leftovers for two day’s worth of lunches.

Shish kafta is another of my Mediterranean favorites. It is essentially a handful of ground lamb flattened into an oblong meatball and grilled. I know that there are some lamb haters in this world, and you have my sympathy for being cursed with underperforming taste buds. I love the taste of lamb, the grassiness and richness of it. Paired with char-grilled slices of bell pepper and wrapped in a piece of pita bread with a dollop of Zaytoon’s knock-your-socks-off garlic sauce, it melted in my mouth.

While everything else on the platter was fresh, hot and intensely flavorful, our other highlight of the meal was the lentil soup. I have never been able to come close to replicating it at home, but lentil soup from good Middle Eastern restaurants is insanely, decadently creamy. Zaytoon’s lentil soup comes with pillowy pieces of bread, like nothing I’ve had before. This soup is the unsung hero of the menu. The fiancé loved it so much that he texted me the next day and told me that he hadn’t stopped thinking about it. A strange thing to crave, no doubt, especially coming from a man who is obsessed with Oreos.

On our next visit — OK, our next two visits, because we have been going to Zaytoon weekly —we stuck with the Toon for Two. It’s been a struggle for me, because I’ve gotten intel that the salmon is also delicious. But I simply can’t get enough of that grilled lamb shish kafta.

We also sampled some of the dropdead gorgeous baked goods. The carrot cake is moist and heavy on the cinnamon, which I dig, and the cream cheese frosting is sweeter than my cream cheese frosting, which the fiancé digs. I know that I can make a delicious carrot cake at home, so it’s rare that a restaurant version blows me away. This one was no exception, so next time I’ll just go straight for the baklava ($2.49) — which I definitely cannot make at home. All those layers of phyllo dough, layered with chopped nuts and soaked in honey, crumbled in my hands. Zaytoon’s baklava is delicate and rich and was even better the next day when the dough became a bit more firm.

If you haven’t been to the west side since the days of two movie theatres within a mile of each other, it’s time to go back. Go hungry — and don’t make lunch plans for the rest of the week.

Zaytoon Mediterranean 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday. 940 Elmwood Drive, Lansing. (517) 203-5728,