Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m. D, MD, V. Reservations. Prices: Main courses at dinner $5.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20 a person.
If first impressions are the most important, Yaldizlar has solved the big problem and now can attend to the rest of them. Its first impression is a sensation. This new Lebanese restuarant is, after all, in an unexpected spot for an alluring dining room, being on a tiny thoroughfare connecting Connecticut Avenue with Calvert Street, at the bottom of the hill from the new entrance of the Sheraton Washington. Entering from the back of a commercial strip, you find yourself greeted by soft Middle Eastern music and the sound of fountains, the expanse of tables clothed in Mediterranean blue with napkins folded into fans and carnations on each table. The lighting is dim, coming from candles and frosted-glass tulip lamps. Waiters wear white shirts and black bow ties. This is not a back-alley luncheonette, but a full-blown restaurant, with nearly two dozen appetizers and 15 main courses concocted with pine nuts and yogurt and spices reminiscent of exotic marketplaces.
If your order the first item on the menu, your first impression will be reinforced. Complete mezzeh, it is called, 12 plates of appetizers spread across the table, with a relish dish of pointy black olives and raw vegetables and a basket of warm pita bread to dip, fold and scoop the cracked wheat and parsley tabouleh, hummos, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves, tiny lamb pizzas, baked stuffed lamb kbaibat, fava bean paste, ground chickpea felafel, thick creamy yogurt, spiced meat balls, fried bits of lamb kidney and juicy, cardamon-spiked sausages. Although these servings are smaller than the normal appetizers, the array is a bargain at $15, and enough for several people to nibble to satisfaction. Not all of it is delicious; the hummos is short on lemon and garlic, the grape leaves are pasty, the pizzas dry little discs, and the foul moudammas craves seasoning. But it is the array that is important, and the highlights -- tabouleh, baba ghanouj, and the three meat appetizers -- intersperse enough flourishes of lemon and olive oil and spicy fragrances to elevate the assortment.
Even if you don't summon the entire mezzeh, a few carefully chosen appetizers will endear Yaldizlar. The key to the choice, coincidentally, is price. Nearly all the $3 appetizers are savory: sausages, sweetbreads, lamb liver or kidney, soujok, felafel and baba ghanouj. The meat appetizers are bathed in an addictive lemony oil. Start with these (and probably wish you could end with these). Most other appetizers are $1.75, and disappointing at that. Raw ground lamb kibbeh, at $4.95, is fairly good if you like raw meat, freshly ground and fat-free, but needs considerably more seasoning.
Moving on to the next course reveals the problems that Yaldizlar has not yet tackled. The main dishes are simply not very good. The problems are a combination of careless cooking and indifferent ingredients. Shish kebab is after all, a simple dish requiring only good meat, a few condiments for marinating, a couple of raw vegetables to intersperse with the meat, and a hot fire (charcoal, the menu promises) to sear the meat. This shish kebab uses tender, well-trimmed lamb and nice fresh mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Fine start. But the meat tasts of no seasoning, and has been cooked too slowly so it is not well browned or crusty. Still, it is the best of the main dishes. Shish tawook, a chicken debab meant to be tart with lemon and highly spiced, is also adequate; blanketed with cinnamon-sweet tomato sauce, it could use some tangy balance, but is pleasant. And the third skewered meat, kifta kebab, is spicy and rare-cooked ground meat, interesting but too salty when I tasted it. The kebabs come with the chef's special rice, which is dotted with carrots and peas, oozing butter and lemon-scented, topped with almonds. It is the best pat of the main dish. The other choices are hot fish, a speciality of the house that is too-fishy flakes of fish mixed with tomato sauce and formed into a crescent. It tastes like fish with Spanish rice helper. An item called "artichoke (with ground meat and pine nuts)" is nothing but a couple of mushy overcooked canned or frozen artichoke hearts on the side of a mound of rice with a little meat and a few pine nuts. That cost $6.25. For another 70 cents the same dish comes with a whole Cornish hen -- cooked dry but reasonably tasty -- instead of the artichoke hearts. And grape leaves with ribs, also $6.25, is nine lemony, slightly pasty stuffed grape leaves with one small square of breast of lamb, very tender and nicely tart with lemon, but a more a garnish than a serving of meat. Those problems, however, are penuriousness. The kibbeh and cous -- cous have problems of clumsy cooking, the kibbeh arid and tough, badly reheated; the couscous overwhelmed with tomato and alternating bland and spicy bites because the spices were not distributed through the dish. With main dishes come a side dish of yogurt with cucumber and mint, in some cases the highlight of the course.
Dessert, depending on the day, can be the final straw. One day the baklava was fine, flaky and honey-drenched, topped with pistachios. Another day it was soggy and rubbery. No pistachios. The Nights of Lebanon dessert, apparently the waiters' favorite, is a bland white cornstarch pudding loaded down with whipped cream, bananas and pistachios, drizzled with honey. The Arabic coffee is good, authentically perfumed with cardamom.
The wine list is as erratic as the menu, being reasonably priced (averaging $7), with some decent California pinot chardonnay and a zinfandel with a strange off-taste. Unfortunately, there are no Middle Eastern wines.
But maybe Yaldizlar is progressing i n a linear fashion, starting with the interior decoration and moving to the appetizers. I hope the main dishes are the next problem they address, for Yaldizlar is a welcome touch of elegant ethnicity for Calvert Street.