A few weeks ago, I received a mysterious spice from some relatives who had recently visited the Middle East. While it looked like highly processed marijuana (and had a rich earthy smell), the taste was a little salty and was said to be a wonderful sprinkling to put on top of a plate of hommos.
I brought a few pinches of it last night to Old Jerusalem on Wells, a casual eatery we enjoy very much, and put it in front of the owner to find out more about it (carefully telling him it was not what it looked like, especially given the baggie I had put it in). He put his nose all the way into it, triumphantly identifying it as Zatar, a popular Middle East spice. Then he shook his head, telling me this was a very commercial grade of Zatar, and came back to the table with his own stash of the stuff (homemade), urging me to eat the whole teaspoonful he had shaken into my palm, so I could experience the difference myself. And indeed, his was richer, deeper, more complex--and it led us into a conversation on the wonders and differences of Zatar, as if we were discussing fine wines. It's part oregano, part salt, some seeds, part something else I didn't catch. Moments later, he appeared with a hommos plate, sprinkled liberally with his Zatar--absolutely heavenly. Then he came back with a couple of little rolled finger sandwiches, using thin pita-like bread, and spread inside with his Zatar and a bit of olive oil--also divine (the owner said these actually make a nice breakfast snack, accompanied by a glass of fresh-squeezed ornage juice.)
Our hour there also served as a good lesson for my teen-aged son, who could see what happens when you don't just sit there like a lox of a customer, but really take an interest in a restaurant owner's style of food. Pretty cool can things happen.
1411 N. Wells St.