I could eat Middle Eastern food every day of the week and never tire of it. Give me a bowl of smoky eggplant dip, maybe a crusty lamb kebab or chicken shawarma, and I'm a happy camper. So why am I glancing at my watch at Zikrayet (540 John Carlyle St., Alexandria; 703-838-2008), silently counting the minutes until I feel comfortable asking for the check?
Maybe it's because my waiter is trying to sell me a bottle of wine without the benefit of my seeing a list or prices first. "I'll give you a good deal," he says as he shows off three bottles of his own selection.
My unease may also have to do with the stiff bench I'm sitting on in the rear of the 130-seat, Lebanese-theme dining room, which opened in May in a part of Alexandria that is bursting with condo and business growth.
Then again, what really makes me want to wrap up the evening quickly is food that has very little character. Dull kibbe, pita that resembles cardboard and a lamb kebab that brings the Sahara to mind (it's dry) can't keep us in our seats -- quite unlike the menu at Neyla in Georgetown, from which Zikrayet hired its cook.
Launched by first-time restaurant owners Joyce and Charbel Abdallah and Lebanese food importer Joseph Asmar, Zikrayet wants to be a hangout as much as a place to refuel, which explains the Z-Lounge, a hookah bar behind the host stand. The restaurant's Web site encourages patrons of the nightspot to "dress to impress"; we didn't stick around to check out the couture or listen to the live DJ, who spins international music from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
In fairness, since my early visit, Zikrayet has printed its wine list. And the restaurant (whose name translates as "Memories" in Lebanese) clearly is eager to tap into the after-work crowd: Weekdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m., the newcomer offers a 25 percent discount on all food and drinks in the lounge and bar.
But the deal prompts a question: Will an ordinary meat-sprinkled hummus taste any better for $6 than for $8?
--Tom Sietsema (First Bite, June 11, 2008)