Open Sunday and d Monday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Appetizers $2.25 to $6; at lunch main dishes $4.25 to $12.75; at dinner main dishes $7 to $12.75.
"This Is a Temporary Menu," the menu of Alia still said, three months after the restaurant opened. More than that, however, seemed temporary.
There was no flounder. We asked for the shrimp kebab. There was no shrimp kebab, nor was there sauteed shrimp. But there was fried shrimp, which made us worry that the fried shrimp was prepackaged, or at least breaded long ago.
So we tried the shish taouk, a chicken kebab. This is, after all, a Jordanian restaurant and the first of its kind in Washington, and shish taouk can be the most delicious of Middle Eastern dishes. It looked lovely at first glance, the large cubes prettily arranged on the plate with rings of green pepper, grilled onions and cherry tomatoes. At second look, however, it was odd. The pale ivory cubes were larger than one could imagine coming from any normal chicken breast, and peculiarly regular. The meat not only pulled apart in shreds but also had air holes in it. The waiter later confirmed that the restaurant buys ready-cubed chicken because, he said, it looks better. We can report that it tasted awful, like sawdust, and was flavorless, a chicken version of grilled bologna. Too bad; it was nicely seasoned, and the grilled vegetables were fine.
Actually, none of the main dishes tasted any better. Baked kibbe tasted dry and reheated. Shish kebab, too, tasted as if it had been baked for hours then reheated, drained of all savor. Stuffed cabbage tasted totally unseasoned. Stuffed grape leaves were one day crunchy with bits of uncooked or dried-out rice, another day so soft that the rice had turned to paste. And a lunch special of braised lamb with artichokes was so leached of flavor that one could not guess whether it was lamb, pork or veal; with it were canned-tasting artichoke hearts and carrots that tasted either defrosted or held in water until their flavor dissipated. Only the kefta kebab, a ground-meat kebab, had any savor. The tightly compacted meat rolls at least were spicy and brightened by chopped fresh parsley.
We made do with the rice, in some cases soft and comforting white rice, in other cases a deliciously buttery and aromatic mold of sweetly spiced rice with a spoonful of tomato sauce on top.
In general we wished we had stopped with the appetizers. If dinner time should find you at Alia, make a meal of an assortment of appetizers. The hummus was excellent, a large portion of fluffy, creamy sesame-chickpea paste with a vibrant balance of lemon and garlic, garnished with pink pickled turnips and hot peppers. Tabulleh was also good, mostly parsley rather than mint, with chopped tomato and not much cracked wheat. Like the cold stuffed grape leaves, it was highly peppered, a surprise in Washington's Middle Eastern restaurants. What's more, it was generously decorated with feta, hot peppers and a stuffed grape leaf. The menu offers an eclectic assortment, including feta with olives, fruit or shrimp cocktail, chopped liver, Italian antipasto and felafel -but a hard, dry and bland rendition. For the bold, there is kibbe naie, the Middle Eastern version of tartar steak. Again the portion was very large, intriguing in its spicing and attractively topped with herbs and paper-thin slices of onion. But its color was so pale that it hardly looked like meat, and so much oil had been kneaded in as to make it taste heavy and spoil its texture.
After dinner one can drown any disappointments in Turkish coffee -the waiter thoughtfully inquired how sweet we wanted it -and a good baklava, lightly honeyed and crisp. There are other assets, too: A band and belly dancer perform in the evening, and part of the room is divided into rather private booths.
The dining room has been redecorated from its old Asian-restaurant days with ivory brocade wallpaper in a Middle Eastern design and hung with a parade of stained-glass lamps and crystal chandeliers. Photos of Jordan and the royal infant compete for attention with a stuffed moose head.
Next door to alia is its deli-carryout, connected to the restaurant's kitchen. And there one's disappointments are reconfirmed. The glass case displayed rows of salads that were encrusted, dried out or turned dark from exposure. And the shop had an unsavory stale smell.
It was nice to hear that Washington had gained a Jordanian restaurant. But one hopes it changes more than the menu.