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