Mezza are worth the wait.
Judging by the crowds at the new Lebanese Taverna in Bethesda, you’d think they were giving the shawarma away. The throngs make the vestibule look like the waiting area for the Northeast Regional at Union Station, and even if you have a reservation (which I did), you’re liable to stand there for 15 minutes (which I also did).
So what’s the attraction for this new restaurant and this longtime local chain? Much of it, certainly, is the story of the Abi-Najm family. The family’s voyage on a cargo ship in 1976 to escape civil war in Lebanon and subsequent hard work in the United States resulted in the classic realization of the American dream. The Abi-Najms now run six Lebanese Taverna restaurants, four cafes, a market and a catering business—and they conduct cooking classes.
The not-so-secret to their success is that the establishments offer shareable, reliable fare that’s great for families and large groups, and is reasonably healthy, reasonably priced and reasonably familiar. Lebanese Taverna has graduated way beyond its beginnings as a mom-and pop ethnic eatery, which, depending on your point of view, is either a good thing or a bad thing.
In fact, if the chatter on the Web is any indication, local diners are divided. For example, among the more than 130 reviewers on Yelp.com who posted comments about a particular Lebanese Taverna restaurant over the past two years, some are longtime fans who swear by their location, others say their dining experience was good but not great, and another contingent claims the chain has gone downhill or lacks authenticity. “I sometimes order Lebanese Taverna to cater events for my work. The food is always incredible, plentiful, and everyone enjoys,” reads one entry on Yelp. “I have had a lot of Lebanese food in the past, and this hardly measures up,” reads another, commenting on a meal at the Woodley Park branch.
So where does the newest location fit into the debate?
Both sides will find plenty to support their cases.
Fans will continue to fall for Lebanese Taverna’s mezza, the small servings that are the heart of the cuisine. You can’t go wrong with m’saka, a soothing mixture of eggplant and chickpeas cooked with tomatoes; shrimp katafy, greaseless fried shrimp breaded in shredded phyllo; or camel wings, chicken wings sautéed with garlic, lemon, cilantro and olive oil. And the standbys—hummus, tabouleh, grape leaves and kibbeh—are all respectable versions, best to eat en masse with their contrasting flavors. As for the entrees, the new restaurant does better with dishes that require slow, moist cooking. Mouzat, braised and seasoned lamb shank served over tomato sauce, is like the Lebanese version of osso buco, its meltingly soft meat falling easily off the bone. Also on the comfort food circuit is ouzi, perfumed chunks of tender, stewed lamb served on a mountain of rice.
Given the frequently packed house, the service is surprisingly efficient, and the setting is elegant, despite the informality of the place. It’s large—160 seats in the dining room, plus room for 60 more in the bar and the sofa-lined lounge. Intricate Moroccan lanterns sit on open-sided shelves, chandeliers that look like cascading glass bubbles hang from the ceiling, and the communal washroom area is way cool. A bank of vessel sinks lines the wall, and there are little cups and mouthwash for gargling the garlic breath away.
But detractors will find some of the same problems at this outpost that they’ve noted at the other locations. Skewered meats and shawarma dishes should be no-brainers for a Lebanese restaurant, but the kitchen here gets a C-minus in grilling and rotisserie cooking. The chicken, lamb, beef and seafood were all dry and drained of their seasoning, in desperate need of a dive into a sauce pool.
I also didn’t like the pizzas; their crusts were soggy and their toppings dull. And I guess it serves me right ordering Lebanese cheesecake, which turned out to be more like a sweet grilled cheese sandwich. Furthermore, I’m a big fan of fatteh, the layered dishes that my friend likened to Lebanese nachos (toasted or fried pita topped with vegetables, chicken or lamb, then smothered with yogurt, pine nuts and garlic), but the two versions I tried here were a mushy hodgepodge.
So where do I come out on the debate? I’d gladly drop by for a late mezza lunch, or a dish of mouzat on a cold Monday evening. But I’ll save my battle with crowds for the Northeast Regional.
Highlights of Lebanese Taverna
7141 Arlington Road, Bethesda
Monday through Friday,
11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.
Lunch and dinner mezza, $4.50 to $10; entrees, $15 to $23. Lunch platters, $10 to $13.50. SPECIAL NOTE: Combination mezza platters are available at lunch, but are not listed on the dinner menu. However, the restaurant offers a “group mezza” menu for parties of four or more at dinner, which is a good deal ($19 to $29 per person) and includes a large array of dishes. You may have to ask for it; on two separate occasions, the menu wasn’t offered, and the wait staff didn’t mention it.
Interesting array of international bottles, arranged in categories using words that aren’t always helpful (“ethereal,” “compelling,” “decadent” among them). Ignore the hype and just give one of the Lebanese wines a try.
Mezza: kibbeh, m’saka, shrimp katafy, camel wings, tabouleh.
Entrees: mouzat, ouzi.
Good Place to Go For
A late lunch or early dinner, particularly with a large group, and especially if there are vegetarians.
Parking garage underneath restaurant; entrance on Elm Street; Bethesda Metro.