Dining on a Shoestring: Kababji Grill

Local Middle Eastern restaurants tend to fall into two categories: well-worn cafes or lavishly decorated dining rooms. Neither is the case with two international chains—one a falafel shop, the other a mezze-and-kebab house—that recently arrived in downtown DC. Each brings a refreshing breath of modernity.

The country’s first outpost of the Lebanese franchise Kababji Grill is a sit-down restaurant that’s downright hip. Dark-stained wooden lattices serve as partitions, and a patchwork stone wall could be a design element in any hot restaurant. Smiling, black-clad servers open doors and welcome you as if you just arrived on Fantasy Island, not a kebab house.

Diners watching their pennies should focus on the mezze. Good values include the monk salad ($5.50)—roasted eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and onions—and the tangy chickpeas with yogurt ($5.50). Paired with puffs of warm pita and a shareable order of kebabs from the grill—such as cubed chicken ($12 lunch, $16 dinner) or the ground-beef kibbeh ($13 lunch, $16 dinner)—they make a well-rounded meal.

Another deal: At lunch, kebabs are wrapped in pita and cost $6; upgrade to a $10.50 platter and you get hummus and French fries.

A fava-bean appetizer ($5.50) was flavorless, and grilled potato slices ($4) were so undercooked that we sent them back. The manager handled the problem graciously, offering us a substitute and, when we declined because we were full, giving us his card so we could take him up on it next time.

At $7 each, desserts can fatten the bill, but some are worth considering. A chocolate-mousse-and-caramel pyramid is remarkably light, and the house-made chocolate and vanilla gelati are rich and smooth.

A few blocks away, Amsterdam-based Maoz Vegetarian is less upscale than Kababji but every bit as modern. You’re likely to see everyone from bike couriers to yuppies at the communal tables. Tiles with neon-green, gray, and white waves cover the walls and ceiling of the basement cafe.

Despite its food-court efficiency, Maoz delivers a satisfying lineup of healthy options. Five hot rounds of falafel are stuffed into pita along with fried disks of eggplant and a dollop of hummus for the Royal Sandwich combo ($8.75), which comes with fries and a drink. Sandwiches include unlimited trips to the salad bar—a nice touch for falafel fans. The bar offers about a dozen toppings—chunky carrot salad, lemony broccoli and cauliflower, green bulgur-wheat salad—plus a handful of sauces.

The falafel itself is fresh and crisp, made daily with chickpeas soaked the night before and fried to order. It’s got the herby, nutty flavor that characterizes a good falafel.

Belgian-style fries ($3)—thick-cut with the skin on—and sweet-potato fries ($3.50) are excellent and come in portions two people might have trouble finishing. The big disappointment was the egg-and-eggplant sandwich ($5.50), with its hard-boiled egg and scarcely enough eggplant to fill half a pita.

Vegan rice pudding ($3.50), with a hint of anise and a sprinkle of cinnamon, is a nice way to finish.


–March, 2010 

Get Our “Brunches This Weekend” Newsletter

The best breakfasts and brunches to try every weekend, plus our most popular food stories of the week.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.
We engage readers directly in their mailboxes with topics like Health, Things to Do, Best Brunches, Design & Shopping, and Real Estate. Get the latest from our editors today.
Get The Best Of Washingtonian In Your Inbox!