- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

Twenty-six years ago, the Abi-Najm family emigrated from Lebanon to Arlington. They opened a restaurant, the Lebanese Taverna; it did well. So they opened another in Washington, on Connecticut Avenue; it did so well that people stood in line up to an hour on the sidewalk waiting to get in. A market and cafe followed.

Late last year, the family (The parents have retired, so now the five siblings run the business.) opened a beautiful new restaurant on Pentagon Row at the Pentagon Center in Arlington (and, more recently, a restaurant in Annapolis).

The Pentagon Row Lebanese Taverna is an elegant, stylish restaurant and the food is delicious. The chief drawback is that the restaurant will not take reservations after 6:30 p.m.

It has a Moroccan flair in the deep reds, oranges and browns of the decor, the cushioned banquettes running along the sides of the dining room, the colorful hanging lamps and the lovely wooden sideboards and lacquered tables. The adjacent bar is an equally pleasant space where the tables have backgammon boards under glass.

Large glass double doors open onto an outdoor patio, part of the central plaza in front of the restaurant; in winter, the plaza becomes an ice skating rink.

Appetizers are the stars of the menu at the Lebanese Taverna, and the meze menu can provide a full meal of variations of the 24 small dishes offered, ranging from a tasting sampler of nine appetizers for $14 to the grand meze for $79. More than half of the dishes are vegetarian.

Another convivial way of enjoying a meal with friends is the table meze, which combines appetizers and sliced roast meats or kebabs of lamb, beef and chicken for $23 or $25 per person. (Everyone is served the same thing in the table meze.)

If you go the individual route, don't miss the silky-smooth, rich hummus with the terrific house-baked, puffy, hot pita loaves to dip into the creamy mixture. (The bread is baked throughout the day; it's always hot and fresh and absolutely irresistible.) The hummus is served plain or with pine nuts, or topped with ground meat, pine nuts and almonds or with slices of marinated beef and lamb. Any way is good.

In baba ghanouj, the pureed eggplant has a slight bite from the tahini, lemon juice and garlic; the pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top add color and crunch.

Eggplant is prepared in several different ways. M'saka is a cool combination of eggplant and chickpeas with tomatoes, onions and garlic (not to be confused with Greek or Turkish moussaka, which is a meat dish). Bathenian moutabel is roasted eggplant mixed with garlic, lemon and olive oil. It's similar to the baba ghanouj but more garlicky and without the tahini.

A delicious dish is the little oval-shaped kibbe made of ground beef and lamb with a center of pine nuts and served with a creamy yogurt dipping sauce.

Another delicious starter is fatayer b'spanigh deep-fried triangular pastries filled with onions, pine nuts and spinach. Each ingredient retains its unique texture and the flavors blend refreshingly.

My favorite entree is either the garlic chicken (farrouj), a roasted half-chicken with a pungent, spicy garlic puree served either with potatoes or rice, or the shish taouk, a skewer of chunks of chicken breast, grilled with onions and pepper slices and served with rice and the same wonderful garlic puree. You'll definitely need some lemon or parsley after eating the puree.

Chicken shawarma is a close third. It's a dish of thinly sliced chicken breast, which has been marinated and cooked on a rotisserie. The marinade makes the chicken very tender, but not mushy, and the accompanying tomato, onion and tahini sauce complements the delicacy of the meat. Sliced beef or lamb, or a mixture of the two with chicken, are other versions of the dish.

Lamb shish kebab with an accompanying tomato sauce is an excellent main course. Both the lamb and the chicken are almost fork-tender; the lamb is still pink and not overcooked. Both are wonderful. The beef shish kebab could be a bit more tender and grilled a slightly shorter time, but the flavor is good.

A beautifully balanced kebab is the seafood grill, a combination of jumbo shrimp and chunks of fresh swordfish, both marinated for tenderness and flavor. I tried some of the garlic puree with the dish and it worked very well.

Fatteh blahmeh is an unusual combination of chunks of grilled lamb in a warm yogurt sauce with pine nuts, garlic and sliced radishes. It's a creamy, delicate dish, neither heavy nor overly spiced.

Desserts include the usual baklava, which is made in house and is crispy and sweet without being gooey. There are several other desserts, such as rice pudding and bread pudding. Try the Arabic coffee, an aromatic, strong coffee perfumed with cardamom.

The Lebanese Taverna has an excellent wine list at very reasonable prices with a full selection of half-bottles in both reds and whites. Of particular interest are the Lebanese wines from the Becca Valley. Lebanese Taverna bought out the entire available supply of 1994 Chateau Musar, a lovely, medium-bodied red wine, which the restaurant sells for $39 per bottle. There are several other excellent reds from the same area, ranging in price from $23 to $32. Wines by the glass (there are nine whites and nine reds) are priced between $4.50 and $10; half-bottles from $12 to $25 and full bottles of wines from the United States, Chile, France, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Italy, as well as Lebanon, are priced from $17 to $65.

As the poet said, "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou." Lebanese Taverna can supply great bread and some fine Lebanese wine. The diners will have to supply their own "thou."


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