Ayse: Mad for Mezze
The small-plates menu at this Frederick restaurant revels in the flavors of Greece, Lebanon, and Turkey.
Reviewed By Todd Kliman
Salty and sweet: Ayse dresses up pastirma—thin slices of dried beef—with crushed pistachios, apricots, and feta. Photographs by Scott Suchman.
Comments () | Published August 30, 2013
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Address: 6 N. East St., Frederick, MD 21701
Phone: 240-651-5155
Neighborhood: Frederick
Cuisines: Greek/Mediterranean
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Thursday: 11:30 AM to 10 PM, Friday & Saturday: 11:30 AM to 11 PM, Sunday: 10:30 AM to 9 PM, Closed Monday
Price Range: Moderate
Dress: Informal
Noise Level: Chatty
Best Dishes Cured black olives; Istanbul-spread sampler; sugar-snap peas with almonds; pastirma; roasted dorade; chicken tawook; walnut cake; fig-and-apricot newtons.
Price Details: Small plates $4 to $18.

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.

(Left) Shish Tawook (chicken thigh kabobs), and (right) a selection of pita bread dips.

This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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