2008 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008
When the Lebanese owner of Me Jana spots a companion and me eating pita bread, he comes over to share a story. "We eat that for breakfast, you know," Rabih Abi-Aad says, pointing to the bread, the yogurt and the crushed herbs that sit on the table. "Except back home, we put tomatoes and cucumbers on the bread, and bake it. Want to try some? It will only take a minute." Sure enough, a minute later there's a round of warm pita before us. We take a bite and understand his enthusiasm -- and also what helps Me Jana tick. Few other restaurants make you so glad to be there, a sentiment imparted not just by the boss but by everyone down to the busboys. Here's the place to explore tradition -- I'm a fool for the smoky eggplant puree and bullet-shaped, beef-filled fried kibbe -- but also to venture beyond those borders: Silvery anchovies arranged with red peppers and pine nuts, strewn with lemon zest, are my latest addiction. The mixed grill is still best for its juicy ground beef kabob (the chicken is ordinary), but it's served with such kindness, and in such a comfortable setting, that I'm willing to forgive an off note now and then.
A Welcome Addition in Arlington
A Lebanese restaurant rolls out the red carpet
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 24, 2008
Me Jana could serve nothing but (pita) bread and water, and I bet it would still get customers. The lures would be an attractive dining room and the kind of service customers anticipate when they're paying big bucks but they're tickled to find at $40 or so a head - including wine, tax and tip.In reality, Me Jana serves plenty to eat. A Lebanese-flavored addition to Arlington, the restaurant offers about three dozen appetizer-size plates, or mezze. But your first taste of the place is a warm reception in the foyer (Me Jana refers to a Lebanese ballad sung to welcome friends) followed moments later, once you're seated, by the delivery of football-shaped pita. Warm from the oven and served with a plate of crushed herbs, thick yogurt and shiny olives, the little blimps are easy to fill up on.
Restrain yourself. You'll want to save room for a dip or two. The hummus is velvety in texture and dusted with sumac, while the baba ghanouj tastes like eggplant that crossed a bonfire and a garlic patch on its way to a blender and your bowl. Rice-filled grape leaves are slick and tangy, but they're served too cold to allow their flavor to surface. This is a kitchen that isn't afraid to give it to you sharp - a snack of pickled turnips, cucumbers and peppers (kabis on the menu) is exciting punctuation between some of the more mellow starters.
Here's where I bring friends who don't eat meat, although I do (and want to). There's something for all of us. Much as I like beef-filled kibbe, I prefer this kitchen's vegetarian version of the fried, bullet-shaped snack, whose cracked-wheat shell breaks open to a filling of potatoes mashed with feta cheese. One of the prettiest salads around is what Me Jana simply calls "multi color." Sure enough, the artfully arranged yellow beets, green beans, potato and red pepper strips add up to an edible rainbow, an eyeful enhanced by a zesty sumac dressing. Falafel fashioned from chickpeas and fava beans is also bright with parsley, leek and cilantro. Fried to a bronze, the bite-size croquettes crackle in the mouth. Dipped in the accompanying tahini sauce, they're hard to stop munching.
There is seafood, too, including shrimp with cilantro and garlic, and flat little crab cakes, each patty creamy with mayonnaise, a little crunchy with celery and streaked green with fresh basil. Me Jana's very good pita is used to make an appetizer (lahem bi ajeen) scattered with ground lamb and beef. A whisper of cinnamon and a hint of jalapeo in the topping do a little tap dance on the tongue. (Tell the kids the stuff is pizza. Chances are, they'll gobble up the tasty folds.) Typically boring zucchini emerges with a new personality when it's stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts and onions, and presented in a light tomato sauce, or when the vegetable gets shredded, mixed with cheese, egg and onion and cooked up as a delicate fritter. But nothing can revive the fried baby eggplant - a wimpy mush despite the efforts of a cloak of yogurt and garlic in its seasoning. I nod off again when I taste the dense, one-note makanek, or small Lebanese sausages.
Not much time passes between placing your order and the arrival of something interesting on the table. While the food comes out quickly, you don't feel rushed. The young servers at Me Jana act like mind readers, anticipating your need for another glass of wine or basket of bread. And they clear and replace plates so smoothly that you barely notice.
The team also has excellent antennae. Mention you're a first-time patron to Rabih Abi-Aad, the co-owner and co-chef, and there's the chance a glass of sweet wine will appear after dessert. Show up again, and the kitchen might send out a few desserts for the table to share.
At this rate, you joke to yourself, you're on your way to getting comped.
Do bigger portions of food exaggerate a dish's flaws? Based on some of the main courses at Me Jana, the theory holds up. The $25 mixed grill is particularly disappointing. Its chicken and beef kebabs are flat, forcing the spicier lamb-and-beef roll to carry the dish. Indeed, lamb seems to be the protein of choice. The lamb chops - flavorful from their marinade of mint and rosemary and sporting a nice char from the grill - are a draw, and they're supported with crisp green beans and soft diced potatoes.
Given the affordably priced food at Me Jana, the short wine list comes as a bit of a shock. "Has anyone ever ordered Opus One?" a diner scanning the offerings asks a waiter one night. "Maybe you'll be the first!" the server teases. He has to be joking; the cabernet sauvignon-based blockbuster sells for $335 a bottle at Me Jana. What's such a dear wine doing in a neighborhood oasis? The other options, with prices averaging $60, appear to have been plucked from a grab bag of labels. Appealing, food-appropriate wines from Greece and other sunny climes are widely available, but you wouldn't know that from reading the unimaginative selections on this wine card.A flurry of first courses one night banishes any thought of dessert, but our waiter prevails. "We've got some really nice things," he insists. We settle on what sounds like a Lebanese riff on banana pudding and are pleased with the choice. Layers of soft cheese, crisp pastry, fresh bananas, a shower of crushed pistachios and a splash of rose water make an irresistible combination. Chocolate cake, on the other hand, feels like a concession to American tastes, and kanafe is rubbery cheese in a thin case of phyllo.
Diners feast amid some style: buffed dark wood floors, walls in red or peach, lights that cast an amber glow. One small dining room faces North Adams Stree; a second - which has the advantage of large round tables for small groups - looks onto Clarendon Boulevard. Both could be pressed into service as a place to take the family or a date.
That's the nice thing about Me Jana. It addresses, and more than satisfies, multiple needs.