A Lebanese table groaning under a collection of mezes, or small appetizer plates, isn't complete without kibbeh, a dish traditionally made with ground lamb and bulgur. Also known as kufta, kittel and kubba, depending on the country where it is made, the Middle Eastern dish is particularly popular in Lebanon, where it is considered the national dish.
"In the old days, they used to make it only once a week or on holidays," says chef Ghassan Jarrouj of Neyla in Georgetown. "They didn't have food processors or grinders. They had to pound the meat and bulgur by hand. It took a lot of effort and time."
Today, technology has made making kibbeh much easier. And many restaurants offer beef and vegetarian options, so there's a melange of flavors to meet every nibbler's craving. While endless variations make each diner's choice a matter of taste, the three most popular versions are fried, baked and raw. The fried variation is a meatball-style snack with a firm outside and a moist, savory inside of meat and spices. Baked kibbeh, a lasagna-style dish, consists of a fragrant filling of ground meat, spices and pine nuts layered with pieces of dough made from bulgur. And the raw version, kibbeh naya, is like steak tartar.
What better way to celebrate Lebanese Independence Day on Tuesday than by sampling the national dish at one of these local restaurants?
-- Kelly DiNardo
BACCHUS RESTAURANT. While many U.S. restaurants serve kibbeh naya with raw steak, Bacchus sticks to tradition and uses raw lamb ($8.50-$8.75). The restaurant, named for the god of wine and popular with Middle Eastern diplomats, also serves a fried kibbeh made with both lamb and beef ($5.50-$5.95). Whether you choose the smaller downtown location or the fancier Bethesda venue, the plethora of Lebanese appetizers will satisfy both noshers and feasters. 1827 Jefferson Pl. NW, 202-785-0734, www.bacchusdc.net; 7945 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-657-1722, www.bacchusrestaurant.com.
LEBANESE TAVERNA. With four restaurants, three cafes and a market, this local chain gives diners from all over a chance to sample Lebanese fare in a warm atmosphere decorated with Mediterranean colors and accents. All locations serve up kibbeh balls with a combination of ground beef and lamb ($4.75-$5.95), and the restaurants offer kibbeh naya with a garlic paste ($8.95) and kibbeh yoghurtlieh, small kibbeh balls with a warm yogurt sauce and toasted pita ($5.75). For bons vivants eager to make their own kibbeh, the restaurants' cooking classes often include the variations of the dish. Classes are held in Arlington and Annapolis. For class information, call 703-841-1502. www.lebanesetaverna.com.
MAMA AYESHA'S. This large, airy Adams Morgan restaurant is a favorite with groups who want to linger over a variety of mezes, including two types of kibbeh. The kibbeh maglie is fried with a shell made from a cracked wheat and ground lamb mixture and stuffed with beef and spices ($5). The kibbeh from the oven is a baked, layered entree made with alternating sheets of a bulgur wheat dough and a lamb, pine nut and spice mixture ($11). The restaurant's kibbeh naya ($5) isn't on the menu, but in-the-know patrons request the dish. 1967 Calvert St. NW. 202-232-5431. www.mamaayeshas.com.
NEYLA. Both kibbeh dishes at the Georgetown restaurant, as popular for people-watching as for its food, are made with beef. The appetizer kibbeh is a cocktail-size dumpling-like dish in which ground beef, onion and pine nuts are stuffed into a casing of bulgur wheat. It's then fried and served with a small yogurt cucumber salad ($7.50). Another option is the kibbeh naya ($13), an entree of raw steak beef. "It is the most famous kibbeh," says Jarrouj. "All of the restaurants in Lebanon would serve this." Neyla also dishes up a vegetarian option ($6.50), a fried kibbeh with butternut squash, spinach and walnuts. 3206 N St. NW. 202-333-6353. www.neyla.com.
ZAYTINYA. This spacious Penn Quarter restaurant is one of the city's hot spots, and diners should expect a wait at the always-packed eatery. Thankfully, Zaytinya dishes up a plethora of appetizers that can be eaten at the bar. Both the kibbeh naya and fried kibbeh are made with beef ($5.95 each). Several times a week the restaurant also features a vegetarian kibbeh ($8.50) made with potatoes, spinach and caramelized onions and served with baba ghanouj and pomegranates. 701 Ninth St. NW. 202-638-0800. www.zaytinya.com.