Fresh from opening, Zar Zor Restaurant, located on 121 Avenue and 90 Street, offers flavours drawing from long-ago Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia is the ancient name for the land that once encapsulated large chunks of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as well as slices of Iran and Kuwait. Mesopotamia made up a significant portion of the “cradle of civilization,” known for its rich soils that fed the first cities of early civilization.

It is with this rich history in mind that my dinner companion and I set off to Zar Zor Restaurant, curious and eager for traditional Middle Eastern flavours. Not long after we settled in, our waitress fetched on-the-house Iraqi bread to go with our appetizer of kubba halab (crispy rice dough croquettes stuffed with minced lamb, onions, and herbs) priced at $9.95 and hummus at $3.95.

The artfully presented hummus was simple and satisfying. | Sierra Bilton

One can always gauge the quality of a restaurant by the care put into its bread. The Iraqi bread here is flame broiled and has a satisfying chewiness, similar to Indian naan bread. The hummus, topped with olive oil, paprika, and an olive, was simple yet satisfying.

One of my favourite parts of going to a Middle Eastern restaurant is the universal enthusiasm to share culture and language through food. After mispronouncing kubba halab, our waitress graciously corrected us and explained the ingredients of the rice dough croquette, which certainly did not disappoint.

For dinner, I had the falafel, which turned out to be more like an appetizer, with six mini falafels, sliced tomato, and a sour-sweet dip for $13.95. The falafel had a crispy outside and tender centre.

Although I was slightly let down by the falafel size, luckily my companion’s order of shish taouk (tikka) chicken arrived as a huge plate of food at a reasonable $15.95. The pile of rice nearly covered the entire platter with various sides resting along the edge. An onion salad with spices, a welcome dollop of hummus, and a sweet roasted half onion and tomato all sat beside the rice, which towered with two skewers of perfectly marinated and chargrilled chunks of chicken. We enjoyed the sides and juicy chicken with the Iraqi bread the most, while the plain rice was more an afterthought of our enjoyment.

Just when we were ready to pay the bill, our waitress insisted on bringing us two pieces of baklava and tea. The black tea had subtle hints of chai that paired well with the crispy and sweet baklava. When I asked about the tea, owner Mark Piccolo cryptically replied, “All I can tell you is it is special ordered from Vancouver—it is meant to bring you back!” Indeed, it will bring me back.

Zar Zor is unique in its widespread options of breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as specials on Fridays and Saturdays. On Fridays, Zar Zor offers dolmas (vegetables stuffed with rice, minced meat and spices) and cream chop (battered and fried chicken or beef with spices). On Saturdays, adventurous eaters can try pacha (Iraqi sheep head stew) and simak masgouf (charbroiled whole fish). Piccolo recommends their popular qouzi (roasted lamb shank), which I may try during my next visit.

Header image: Chargrilled tikka chicken with sides bursts with authentic flavours. | Sierra Bilton

Zar Zor Restaurant

12118 90 St

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m-8 p.m.

Friday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Closed Mondays