I must admit that I’ve been known to bash Moroccan food a bit. While I’m a big fan of Tunisian food, Moroccan food’s spicier and more seafood-oriented cousin, I tend to lampoon the national dish of Morocco, the tagine. Tagines are an overcooked stew of generally under-seasoned meat and vegetables and as a food, are highly overrated. So at Magazan, I did not order a tagine but instead stuck to two Moroccan foods that I actually like: harira and bastilla. Harira is a lentil soup, which is tough to mess up too badly. Mine was pretty average, though I didn’t find any small pieces of lamb in it, a usual component. I also ordered the chicken bastilla, pastry filled with chicken and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. The sweet/savory combination turns some people off to bastilla, but I really like it. In Morocco, bastilla is just as commonly made with pigeon, and while I was not surprised that pigeon wasn’t an option at Magazan, it would’ve been cool. Nevertheless, Magazin’s bastilla was delicious and beautifully presented.
The major flaw with Magazan, at least in my experience there, was the service. I went in the late afternoon when the restaurant was nearly empty and plenty of staff were there. Nonetheless, my server, while pleasant, was relatively inattentive and slow to take my order. They also brought me the wrong menu (a cheaper menu of lunch specials first) before apologizing and bringing me the dinner menu, because the lunch deals ended earlier despite the fact that I was still there at an off-hour and far too early for dinner. This place has the makings of being great; the food is tasty and the decor is sleek, but the service needs an upgrade.
Magazan is located at 2901 Columbia Pike in the Westmont neighborhood of Arlington, VA.
<rant> Taste of Persia is a food truck that is best avoided. I had hoped that it would have authentic Persian food and serve up tasty kabobs, but I was wrong. For the record, gyros and falafel are not Persian. I ordered a lamb kab0b and was given a gyro sandwich. Don’t call yourself a Persian food truck and serve Greek and Lebanese food. </rant>
I love José Andres’s China Chilcano but I was initially skeptical of Zaytinya. There has been a recent “Mediterranean food” fad in American eating, where all food from the countries around the Mediterranean is lumped together, despite the fact that Turkey, Greece and Lebanon all have distinct cuisines, to say nothing of other countries like Italy, Spain and Morocco. I feared that Zaytinya would offer a rather inauthentic and bland mix of Lebanese, Greek and Turkish food but I should have put more faith in José Andres.
While many of the dishes are an upscale take on the cuisine of their respective countries of origin, they are deeply rooted
in those countries’ culinary traditions. For instance, the snail kibbeh is hardly traditional, but is an absolutely delicious take on the traditional Lebanese dish. Dishes like the adana kebab and the octopus santorini were far more traditional, but artfully cooked and well-presented. The Batata Maquliya (Lebanese frites with za’atar spice and garlic yogurt) are sure to please any french fry-lover. The fries themselves are Belgian-style crispy frites seasoned with za’atar and the garlic yogurt dip is a perfect accompaniment. Finally, the Peynirli Pide (a Turkish flatbread with halloumi cheese, tomato sauce, oregano and cinnamon) was a bit of a cross between a khachapuri and a pizza. It was delicious to be sure, though perhaps not quite as interesting as some of the other items. Zaytinya is a small plates restaurant, so do be aware that you’ll want to order a few things per person, which makes the cost add up.
However, a major advantage of the small plates format at Zaytinya is the fact that dessert can also be ordered in a small portion. This is great if you want to sample a few desserts or just don’t have room for anything big. I was pretty stuffed so I ordered a small “chocolate rose,” consisting of rose ice cream, chocolate custard, and spiced berry puree. It was absolutely top-notch. Finally, a plus of Zaytinya is their selection of several varieties of raki, arak and ouzo- a polarizing drink but a favorite of mine. Sleek modern ambiance and friendly, attentive service round out a five-star experience.
Zaytinya is a Lebanese, Greek and Turkish restaurant located at 701 9th Street NW.
Have you ever walked up 18th street in Adams Morgan (likely not sober) and wondered what the place with the Arabic lettering was? Well it turns out it’s a little Sudanese market called Khartoum, located at 2116 18th St NW. It doesn’t have a huge array of stuff but it does have some cool finds, like fava beans imported from Egypt, as well as all sorts of hookah materials and large containers of cheap olive oil. The friendly owner also talked me in to buying some cumin, which was the freshest I had ever seen. There are a few savory pastries (like sambusas) on the counter, which I plan to try in the future. It doesn’t have a selection of Middle Eastern goods anywhere near as extensive as Shemali’s near American University, but it’s in a much more convenient location (at least for me). It’s worth a stop in, at the very least to check out this unique, somewhat obscure spot.
Mama Ayesha’s is a Palestinian/Lebanese restaurant located at 1967 Calvert Street NW. Ayesha, for whom the restaurant is named, grew up on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in the 1800s when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, making her Palestinian in today’s terminology. She founded Mama Ayesha’s in 1960 and it has remained a beloved institution to this day. Since the countries that comprise the Levant today (Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan) were once once considered part of Greater Syria under the Ottoman’s they all have very similar cuisines, with regional specialties of course. Lebanon came to be known as the region’s culinary center such that top restaurants in Amman, for instance, will often market themselves as Lebanese. Pedantic distinctions about cuisine aside, Mama Ayesha’s is truly excellent. While it makes me cringe to pay American prices for what I would eat for a few dollars in Amman, they do excellent and authentic renditions of some of the best mezze classics, including hummus, fuul and falafel. Service is very friendly and the decor is beautiful, if a bit over the top. They also serve a very satisfying kunafeh, which is very difficult to find done properly in the U.S. Kunafeh, at least the Palestinian version which was invented in Nablus, is a sweet, rich dessert consisting of cheese topped with shredded wheat and sugary syrup.
It may sound gross, and it can be if it isn’t done right. When done right it’s divine and Mama Ayesha’s does a solid version.
Simit + Smith is a Turkish bakery, sandwich shop, and coffeehouse located at 1077 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown. Simit + Smith is a small chain that currently has a handful of other locations in the NYC area, but this location is its first in the DMV. The namesake food at Simit + Smith is the simit, a Turkish, ring-shaped bread somewhat similar to a bagel but a much closer cousin of the Jerusalem bagel aka Jerusalem ka’ak. It’s covered in sesame seeds, savory and delicious. I had a classic simit sandwich with feta and tomato, which reminded me a lot of the delicious “bagel toast” sandwiches I ate almost every morning for breakfast at the famous Arab bakery called Abulafia when I lived in Tel Aviv. They also make spot-on Turkish coffee which is an excellent accompaniment to a simit sandwich. Friendly service and a very cute atmosphere rounds out the experience. The only additional thing I’d like to see is a cheaper way to buy plain simits in bulk. Since this bread has a unique texture and flavor, I’d love to be able to buy a dozen to host a brunch. However, at $3 per simit, that would be awfully expensive just for some bread, however excellent that bread may be.