BACCHUS BETHESDA -- 7945 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda. 657-1722. Open: for lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3 to $4.50, entrees $6.75 to $9.75; most dinner appetizers $3.25 to $4.75, entrees $9.50 to $12.25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 per person.
Grazing may be an American term, but the activity was perfected long before Americans brought it to the dinner table. In the Middle East, it is known as mezze, this feasting on a series of appetizer-size dishes. And in Washington, mezze reached its pinnacle at Bacchus, a small Lebanese restaurant on Jefferson Place. The good news is that now Bacchus has a second, larger restaurant in Bethesda, where mezze can be enjoyed by more people in more comfort. A few new appetizers have been added to the mezze list, and one of them has moved right up to my list of favorites.
Bacchus does, of course, have main dishes. And they are very good ones. But I usually can't get beyond the appetizers without turning them into a banquet by themselves. First, one shouldn't miss the hummus special -- a warmed sesame- chickpea-garlic-lemon pure'e, lighter and more airy than most I have tasted -- prettily piped into an earthenware bowl and topped with ground meat, pine nuts and almonds. Like the rest of the mezze, it is accompanied by warmed pita bread to dip and scoop.
Once, I managed to forgo the warm hummus for the more usual cold hummus, and it turns out that it is wonderfully airy and delicate, attractively striped with red and green powdered spices and topped with whole chickpeas.
The appetizer list at dinner has another two dozen entries, so even a table of six people would have to skip some. But surely you'd want to include one of the homemade sausages -- either the powerfully spicy and tangy soujok or the milder ma'anek. And there are the brand new chicken "drumetts" -- chicken pieces flavored with a zesty marinade of lemon, garlic and olive oil, and grilled so that the skin is crusty and the meat juicy. They come with a wildly garlicky cold potato pure'e that tastes like a less salty cousin of Greece's taramasalata.
Bacchus' falafel is unusual -- very dark, moist and fluffy inside, quite peppery and almost meaty in its flavor, with a lacy crust. It is served with sesame paste. Hot appetizers also include deep-fried kibbe (I prefer the raw version of this spiced minced lamb), wonderful light and crisp phyllo-wrapped kalage stuffed with cheese or beef, and deep-fried vegetables. Only the fried smelts (light and crisp but missing a fresh fish flavor) and grilled chicken livers (long-cooked and intensely lemony) were unexciting.
Among cold appetizers, the eggplant salad -- salatet bethenjan -- is up among the stars with the hummus, sausages and drumetts. The eggplant -- imbued with olive oil, garlic and the sweet tartness of pomegranate -- contrasts with the crunch of fried pita, the pungency of onion and the freshness of raw tomato. Eggplant is also served stuffed with rice and tomato and infused with olive oil, or pure'ed with sesame paste and lemon into baba ghanouj. Bacchus' stuffed grape leaves are excellent, and its yogurt dips of cracked wheat, mint and walnuts or mint, tomatoes and cucumbers are refreshing. There are marinated string beans and sesame-dressed salad, as well as air-dried beef -- called basterma -- and a fresh version of tabouleh, crunchy with fresh parsley and mint. With all of these come a plate of pointy purple olives, pink slices of pickled turnip and whole scallions to munch with the warmed bread.
Not only are all these appetizers well made, they are also nicely garnished with olives, lemon wedges and greens. With a bottle of wine (the list is reasonably priced but pretty insipid, which the management blames on Montgomery County liquor laws), some ouzo or beer, they make a beautiful feast.
Most people won't be able to resist going on to main dishes, I presume. And they aren't likely to be disappointed. There are 14 entree choices on the dinner menu, and few of them miss. As one would expect, many of them are kebabs, nicely marinated and carefully grilled. The spiciest and best, as far as I am concerned, is chicken -- shish taouk -- which is marinated to buttery tenderness and coated with a tart lemony paste for its grilling. Kebabs come with rice -- but not ordinary rice. This rice, rich with butter and tossed with pine nuts and almonds, is wonderful on its own as well as for mopping up the juices of the kebabs. Another intriguing rice is the ouzi, a mound of dark spiced rice tossed with mushrooms, ground meat, almonds and pine nuts, molded and topped with lamb and served with yogurt sauce. The various interplays -- of spicy and bland, soft and crunchy, warm and cold, mild and tangy -- are compelling.
The menu also lists a variation with chicken. Another extraordinary dish is fatte bel lahm, lamb sizzling with butter served on crisp, fried pita and topped with a yogurt garlic sauce, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. It is oozy, tangy and very rich, and comes in variations with chicken or chickpeas instead of lamb. There are also main-dish portions of stuffed grape leaves, as well as stuffed cabbage.
Bacchus has developed its own light and airy versions of the usually heavy and supersweet Middle Eastern pastries. Its baklava is more puff pastry than phyllo and is sweetened lightly rather than being drenched in honey. Its birds' nests stuffed with pistachios are less successful -- in part because they are hard to cut -- but they are far less sweet than most phyllo desserts. Often there are other flaky, nut-filled pastries. The puddings, though they look beautiful with their chalk-white and orange layers, also taste like chalk -- or at least cornstarch. Stick to the pastries, or end with Turkish coffee, which is available in unsweetened, lightly sweetened and syrupy versions.
While it probably sounds wonderful so far, Bacchus has some serious flaws. Twice my reservation was lost -- once this was in part due to confusing the downtown with the Bethesda branches, but also it had been logged on the wrong day. The second time it simply wasn't logged. And service has been awkward at times. The acoustics make it hard for waiters to hear the orders, and we have had the wrong drinks and dishes brought, or the right ones delivered to the wrong table. Not all the waiters understand the food they are serving, which can also make ordering difficult.
The dining room is spacious, with sand-colored walls and a skylit ceiling suggesting a tent. The entry hall prepares you for a lovely and exotic evening with its marble floor, its massive bouquets of brilliantly colored flowers and the gorgeous wooden love seat inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Bacchus is warm and attractive, and while its dining room system needs work, its kitchen turns out food every bit as luscious as we have grown to expect at the Bacchus downtown -- and with space for more of us to enjoy it. ::