Pasha Cafe

Middle Eastern
$$$$ ($15-$24)
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Editorial Review

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005

Any neighborhood is lucky to have a comfortable and dependable "corner restaurant" these days. So many fall victim to the wide range of challenges -- rising rents, food trends, supply costs, visibility, parking -- that it's the ones that survive that seem unusual.

But every once in a while, a restaurant is so well liked, and its loss so regretted, that somehow it reappears, or at least is reinvented. That, happily for North Arlington, is what has happened to Pasha Cafe, which has been reincarnated only a block from its former location, and with a pair of its original chefs, Husham Husham and Abdul Abdelrassoul, in the kitchen. (It's an even nicer story than that, actually: One of the partners and prime movers in the new Pasha is Bill Hamrock, whose modern-American Portabellos moved into the old Pasha space on North Pollard Street a few years ago. Having shown what kind of sanctuary a "better" but not snobby sit-down restaurant can offer a residential community increasingly fenced in by commercial development, Hamrock and company clearly understand the personal half of the "hospitality industry.")

Since opening eight months ago, Pasha has already become a regular stop for family groups out for Sunday supper, single diners reading over salad and wine, early-bird seniors and young couples with kids -- testament to the food, sure, but equally to its unusually outgoing and observant staff.

The new Pasha Cafe is sleek in a non-showy fashion, with polished dark cherry wood, a mix of high stool tables and booths, and a small but well-equipped bar in the back corner. Beginning this weekend, it will add outdoor seating along the side. It has a somewhat broader, more Mediterranean menu than the Middle Eastern original, though with many familiar mezze and kebabs.

This is not a flashy joint. Middle Eastern food is gentle fare in general -- what spicing is to some cuisines, texture is to Middle Eastern -- and unusually easy to get along with. Among the appetizers are several nice versions of dips, including the particularly addictive maramar, a slightly sweet and rich puree of roasted red peppers and walnuts brightened by the sour-plum punch of pomegranate juice; a beefed-up -- actually lambed-up -- hummus topped with shawarma and tomatoes; a slick baba ghannous (baba ghanouj) that might profit from a little more lemon; and the cooling pureed zucchini dip with both yogurt and sour cream called kosa bel zabadi.

Pasha's taboula (i.e., tabbouleh) is a very good one, pungent with parsley and sweet with mint. The marinated baby eggplant is almost its own puree, its meat softened with oil and garlic; its more thoroughly modern twin, the crispy fried eggplant, is surprisingly delicate and light, and reappears as the centerpiece of a homey eggplant-zucchini moussaka. One of the most substantial and uncommon appetizers (in these "Western" parts) is a dish of mildly spicy shrimp with fresh, dry-sauteed okra and roasted peppers.

Entrees are well sized, ample but not overwhelming. One low-key but ingratiating offering is a simple dish of stewed lamb over rice surrounded by a ring of sauce made from a mild-flavored Middle Eastern green called moulkia. (Yeah, yeah, speaks the Southerner: greens and okra.) The artichoke ravioli is better than most, with an unabashedly rooty-sweet filling bolstered by a little fresh spinach and pine nuts, and the sun-dried tomato sauce has a pleasant tartness, though one night, the kitchen had been so exuberant with the sun-dried tomatoes that the sauce very nearly overrode the pasta.

Rice is one of the great foods of the Middle East, and Pasha correctly takes care with its various versions. Both the grilled chicken dishes -- riz bel dajal and the skewered shish taouk -- and the citrus-marinated salmon (one of the couple of Portabellos-like recipes) are simply bedded in good basmati rice. The lamb chops -- thin-cut and lemony, in typical Greek fashion -- come with a brown rice aromatic with cinnamon; the crab cakes get a (very slight) saffron scenting to their basmati. Even the plain white rice served with various other dishes is meticulously rinsed, a simple procedure too often skimped elsewhere.

In addition to the bar, Pasha has a moderately priced wine list that does the by-the-glass routine rather better than many. It also offers a variety of sandwiches, salads and small pizzas.