Zeïtoon: Just Like Mom Makes
What makes the cooking at this Moroccan cafe so good? A trove of family recipes.
Reviewed By Todd Kliman
Zeïtoon’s Cornish hen gets a turn in a tagine and an aromatic sauce. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Comments () | Published March 27, 2013

Address: 21950 Cascades Pkwy., Sterling, VA 20164
Phone: 571-313-0947
Neighborhood: Sterling
Cuisines: Moroccan

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.

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  • Mustafa Sahin

    I recently moved to California, but one of the things that I will miss is going to be Zeitoon, where I used to go pretty much once a week. Among other great options such as their lamb sandwich, I would definitely recommend their penne pasta called 'Rosa' topped with grilled chicken. That was my favorite dish!

  • Michelle

    I am picky about mediterranean food. This place has my loyalty. Excellent pizza. Excellent kebabs. Try the briwat when you come. You'll love it. Service is superior. Super sweet folks.

  • The Gleason Clan, Sterling

    Stopped by for dinner this evening. What a pleasant surprise. The food was outstanding (Lamb Chops). The owner was a friendly and welcoming. He gave us some green tea with mint to top off the wonderful dinner and heavenly rice pudding. All I can says is I think we are hooked.

  • Great food and atmosphere. Ownership couldn't be more friendly and inviting.

  • Paul Bailey, Sterling

    One of my favorite restaurants in Sterling. The food is great, the atmosphere is relaxing and Amine and his family always make us feel at home. My intention is to eat there at least once a week. Zeitoon is definitely a positive addition to the Sterling area cuisine.

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