A Lebanese treat in Annapolis

July 11, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Since the Abi-Najm family opened the first Lebanese Taverna 23 years ago, it has developed a loyal following in the Washington area. It has since grown the business into a small chain of restaurants that garner high ratings in Zagat, a veritable bible in the restaurant biz.

Now, those of us living beyond the Beltway (the one around D.C., that is) don't have to schlep quite as far to see why the tavernas get such good buzz; the fifth and newest one opened two months ago in Annapolis.

The taverna in Annapolis Harbour Center is more casual than the original outposts in Arlington and Washington's Woodley Park. Food is served at a counter in the rear (which is problematic because that means appetizers and entrees are ready simultaneously), and there is no liquor license. High windows flood the room with light, while green and yellow striped walls exude a breezy, unfussy atmosphere.

Taverna is the sort of place where appetizers - called mezza - are required. An entire meal could be made of them. We chose the vegetarian combination (a mix of five different appetizers for $7.75).

The tabouleh was unlike any other kind we've tried, because it consisted almost entirely of fresh, ground parsley rather than bulger wheat. (In fact, we first thought the bits of bulger were sesame seeds tossed on top for show.) The intensity of the parsley was softened somewhat by a little mint and lemon juice-olive oil dressing. But we enjoyed the change of pace from the normally grain-heavy salad.

Shakshouky - a salsa-like swirl of eggplant, scallions and tomatoes bound together with pomegranate molasses - was delicious enough to eat with a spoon. We also loved a slick-looking grapeleaf filled with chickpea chunks, tomatoes and spices, and a small triangular dumpling plump with a pungent spinach filling. The only dull member of the group was a tasteless couscous salad.

A yogurt salad turned out to be what we would call a yogurt dip, heavy on garlic, that was the perfect accompaniment to the rectangular, small loaves of pita bread that came with our meals. A basic house salad proved too messy to eat, because it came piled into a tiny bowl that a few decades ago might have been better used for dipping one's fingers in between courses.

Since most of taverna's entrees featured lamb or chicken, we chose one of each. Sharhat ghannam was a nice-looking dish of medallions of grilled lamb, pink in the center and crispy round on the outside, arrayed in a horseshoe over rice. The meat was fine, but we could not detect any of the lemon, parsley and garlic butter sauce listed on the menu.

Fatteh djaje, the chicken dish, was a fascinating blend of taste and texture, chewy chicken, grainy whole chickpeas and crunchy pine nuts awash in a thick, tangy yogurt sauce.

Lebanese desserts usually include rosewater, a taverna employee said, and the rice pudding was no exception. While we gave it points for authenticity, we simply couldn't muster more than one bite of what tasted like perfume. The same ingredient worked beautifully in pistachio baklava, however, adding a very subtle sweetness to the sugar-based syrup that taverna uses instead of the heavier honey syrup that is used in Greek baklava.

We washed it all down with cups of hot Arabic tea redolent of cardamom. The actual taste was far more comparable to basic black tea, but the smell alone made the drink well worth ordering.

Lebanese Taverna

Where: 2478 Solomons Island Road (Annapolis Harbour Center), Annapolis

Open: Daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $3.95; entrees $4.95 to $10.95

Credit cards: All major cards

Call: 410-897-1111

Food: ***

Service: *

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

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