On a summer night, there aren’t many dining rooms more inviting than the one at Ayse. The open, high-ceilinged room is done up in cooling shades of white and blue, the floor is laid with marble tile, and the padded booths strewn with embroidered pillows summon a taverna overlooking the Aegean. This isn’t a family business, but the young staff exudes a small-town sincerity and graciousness. Fortunately, Ayse (pronounced “eye-shay”) is as much of a draw where it matters most: on the plate.
Make that plates. Your table is likely to be covered with them during this culinary tour of Greece, Lebanon, and Turkey. The format is mezze—small dishes that seem to span every conceivable kitchen preparation. There are 87 items in all, and for the most part they’re made with imagination and care.
The dozen daily specials are further enticement. Of recent note: a bowl of sugar-snap peas garnished with almonds and black sesame, a whole dorade roasted to a perfect underdoneness, and fat grilled sardines.
When it comes to the printed menu, look to the more robust preparations. The dried beef known as pastirma arrives with pistachios, apricots, and feta, and the jerky-like meat has the depth of well-made charcuterie. The best of the kebabs is made with chicken thighs—the lightly charred meat is great on its own, even better after a swipe through the whipped garlic spread on the side. “LFC,” or Lebanese fried chicken, isn’t likely to spawn a multinational chain, but it’s hard not to like these bite-size hunks topped with pomegranate seeds and yogurt.
The chef’s ambition to expose diners to the mezze repertoire is admirable, but some dishes need fine-tuning. One night’s pide—a Turkish flatbread—arrived underbaked. Turkish “cigars” filled with feta weren’t crispy enough. Crabcakes tasted as if they existed only to appeal to timid souls unwilling to explore the deep end of the menu.
The cooking won’t make you long for the load-lightening properties of a digestif, but it’s worth sampling the anise-flavored rakis. There are also good wines from Greece, Lebanon, and Israel (from the last come a versatile Moscato and a crisp rosé).
Try to pace yourself before dessert. The walnut cake is remarkably light for being so rich, and the fig-and-apricot newtons are like nothing you remember as a kid.
This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.