Open for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner only. Prices: At lucnh, main courses $5.75 to $10.75. At dinner, appetizers $2.50 to $5.25, main dishes $7.50 to $14.25, desserts $2.75 to $4.75.
Shezan calls itself an international restaurant, but looks like another world, a jewel box lined with deep winey colors and trimmed with brass rubbed to a glow. Although its entrance is an anonymous glass door in an office facade, inside is a calm deeply cushioned lounge and down a broad carpeted stairway is the dining room, spacious and quiet and laden with sumptuous materials. The ceiling is slatted brass, the floor marble and the carpet thick. On the walls are antique embroideries, museum-quality fabrics from Pakistan, where this chain of restaurants originated.This is an environment of sophistication. Waiters in black tie and hostesses in saris. Napkins folded like crysanthemums. Hurricane lamps and service plates of brass. It seems continents away from workaday 19th Street -- unless you look through the blinds to see that you are neighboring an underground parking garage.
To get right to Shezan's virtues, this Pakistani restaurant can introduce you to the subtlety and complexity of the food of the Indian subcontinent, even if you don't like hot spices. The food is mild, but rarely dull. If for no other reason, visit Shezan for its tandoori chicken. Permeated with the smoke imparted by a tandoori clay oven, its skin dark russet and crisp, its meat juicy and tingling with spices, this chicken is very special, as well as a good value at $8.50. The lamb kebab is no less excellent, its meat marinated and crusty, still rare inside. It is, however, a single -- though large -- skewer. And what you really should do is share two tandoor dishes with a companion or persuade the kitchen to serve you a combination, perhaps chicken and ground spiced beef. In any case, the tandoor dishes, from $8.25, along with their cumin-scented rice cooked in chicken stock, make a delicious dinner in delectable surroundings. Even the grilled shrimp, listed under seafoods and costing $14.25, is golden from its marinade and full of intricate seasoning, beautifully grilled.
In these early months, Shezan has been undiscovered and nearly empty. This has meant that it has been luxuriously over-staffed; two waiters have been deployed to serve two appetizers, and a relay of staff has kept the wine replensihed and ashtrays replaced. The waiters have been personable and eager to impart their knowledge and opinions.
There has also been the awkwardness of inexperience at Shezan. One evening the lights were so dim that a diner used a flashlight to read the menu. The next time, they were as bright as a theater at intermission. One night our rice was never brought; another night we got not only rice, but chutneys and even seconds on bread (the flat breads of India are very well made here). We had to argue one night about our wine: An $85 Dom Perignon was brought instead of the $21 Chandon we had ordered, and the waiter insisted it was the same. Furthermore, the champagne was poured into balloon glasses. And most irritating of all (even more annoying than the Muzak-played show tunes) have been the hostess's guided tours of the dining room; she once brought a large group of diners to ogle the embroideries on the wall behind us, which made our dinner ma deux feel like theater-in-the-round.
These growing pains, I expect, will abate, along with the overabundant service. And one can predict Shezan settling down to a restaurant of substantial quality -- with some substantial flaws. Once the routine is settled, other changes need to be made. The appetizer list includes three soups -- all of them pleasant but none outstanding (the turtle soup tasted more like mushroom than turtle), pricey at $2.25 to $2.75 for a small bowl. Otherwise, there are avocados with shrimp, crab or plain, and papaya half. Nothing wrong with them, but the range is too narrow, and it would be nice to have something like India's pakoras and samosas to nibble with a drink.
When one thinks of India and Pakistan, one gets ready for curry. Readjust that notion at Shezan. One night the kitchen was out of lamb curry, certainly a staple of an Indian menu. Another visit, the chicken curry was insipid, stringy meat in a thick golden sauce that lacked any sparkle. But the greatest disappointment at Shezan has been the fish -- the menu said it was fresh, but the waiter said all the fish is frozen when it is received. In any case, our $14.25 disaster was chewy, dry and tasted more of fish than any fish should. And like the curry, its sauce was far too thick. The accompanying green beans and rice steamed in coconut milk saved that meal.
The menu is not limited to Indian-Pakistani dishes, nor should the diner be. Shezan makes an elegant beef stroganoff in a winey mushroom and sour cream sauce, its noodles decorated with stripes of paprika and chopped parsley. And at lunch Shezan has a unique and delightful club sandwich of toasted whole wheat bread layered with spicy marinated meat, sliced chicken and an herb-flecked thin omelet, accompanied by lovely cumin-dusted vegetagbles and homemade potato chips. The chips were stale and the sandwich too thick for its flimsy toothpicks, but otherwise it has the makings of a sandwich classic. And $5.75 isn't bad for a designer sandwich.
If you carefully choose at Shezan, a meal can be delicious and the price moderate for such surroundings. You can also go very wrong. Concentrate, therefore, on the grilled dishes and consider vegetable side dishes -- chicken peas with tamarind and coriander, spinach with potatoes or vegetable kebabs (actually cutlets, very large and spicy and interesting) -- to fill out your meal, or even for an appetizer. The breads -- $1.50 extra -- are one of the kithen's strong points. The wine list is not, but you can find something appropriate and fairly priced if you prefer wine to beer, and the food here is delicate enough to warrant wine rather than require a more serious thirst quencher.
Desserts are better than Indian and Pakistani desserts tend to be around here, but their style is typical: bright orange carrot pudding with cardamom, a near-liquid milk pudding called kheer, again flavored with cardamom and garnished -- theoreically with a silver leaf. And their own ice cream, also with cardamom, is a pretty presentation topped with pistachios, though it leaves an aftertaste reminiscent of condensed milk.
Among Washington's restaurants of elegance, Shezan is a welcome change from the routine of Italian and French. What's more, if you don't get caught by the desire to sample the full range of Shezan's menu, extravagance can be limited to the surroundings rather than the bill.