21950 Cascades Pkwy.
Sterling, VA 20164


Neighborhood: Sterling

Cuisines: Moroccan


Zeïtoon: Just Like Mom Makes

What makes the cooking at this Moroccan cafe so good? A trove of family recipes.

Slideshow: Inside Zeïtoon

Zeïtoon opened a little more than a year ago as a Mediterranean grill and pizza parlor—to the consternation of owner Amine Fettar’s mother. In the months prior, she had beseeched her son to include the dishes of his native Morocco. Fettar resisted, believing his lineup of sandwiches and flatbreads to be what his audience wanted. Soon, that audience began to echo his mother.

“They find out I’m Moroccan, so they’re asking, ‘Why don’t you have Moroccan food? Can you do couscous?’ ” Fettar says. “After the third month, I thought: This is serious.”

By the sixth month, he listened to his mother, Khadija Fettar—and recruited her to supply recipes for her most cherished dishes.

Amine Fettar is no stranger to his mother’s repertoire. He has been cooking these dishes since he was a boy—the dutiful eldest willing to play the part, he says, of “both daughter and son” until an actual girl came along.

Start with an order of zaalook (a robust paste of roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic), a dish of hummus, and a bowl of harira (a lentil soup that gets its distinctive flavor from cinnamon and ginger). Then it’s time to settle in with a tagine ($13.95 each). Many meats cooked in a tagine end up dry, which is confounding when you consider that the clay vessel that shares the dish’s name is meant to retain moisture throughout cooking. Fettar’s preparations actually do, and they’re helped by excellent sauces. Lamb is accented with prunes, almonds, and saffron. Cornish hen is drenched in a rich sauce that includes ginger,preserved lemon, and olives. Couscous ($2) doesn’t come with the tagines, but it’s worth ordering. The semolina grains, seasoned with aged butter scented with thyme, are as fluffy as quick-serve couscous can be.

Khadija Fettar makes the bistilla ($15) by folding puff pastry around a paste of chicken, almonds, and cinnamon, baking it, then dusting it with powdered sugar and cinnamon. She also produces the baklava ($2.95), which is less dense than Greek and Turkish versions. It makes a fine foil for a pot of mint tea, poured from on high to allow for aeration.

Amine Fettar explains that his mother’s presence at the restaurant extends beyond her dishes and her policing of food preparation. Whenever a customer enthuses over a Moroccan staple, she’s never far from his ear.

“I told you, I told you,” she says.

Time and experience have taught Fettar the only proper reply: “Yes, Mom.”

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.