SKEWERS -- 1633 P St. NW. 387-7400. Open: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; for dinner Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $4.50, entrees $4.50 to $6.75; dinner appetizers $2.95 to $4.95, entrees $7.50 to $11.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 to $35 per person.
We haven't had a new Middle Eastern restaurant in Washington for a while, and we have never had one like Skewers.
Much of what Skewers does could be done by almost anyone with a food processor and a grill, but few could make it such fun. Skewers is a simple concept: a small upstairs restaurant that serves nothing but kebabs and a few appetizers, and L'Express, an outdoor cafe' and carryout, downstairs. It is modern, bright and casual. What makes it stand out is the imagination that sparks everything from the decor to the drinks.
The restaurant is decorated with a lot of style for the money. There is a standard layout with a bar in front and a small dining room behind. For a start, what makes it different is accomplished by paint: The walls are peacock and gem colors, with domes and minarets painted to resemble a Middle Eastern cityscape. Tables and chairs are glossy black.
Skewers is vivid and contemporary, softened by the cleverest touch of all -- a few panels of black and gold lace draped from the ceiling that suggest a tent, a hint of a room divider, a fantasy of privacy.
While the wine list reflects the kind of selection you might find in a supermarket, the beverage list includes a little whimsy. There are "The Desert Blonde," which turns out to be champagne with whatever liqueur you choose to flavor it, the more conventional kir royale with raspberry liqueur, and juices of orange, grapefruit, grape and apricot. No, there is not a great fruit drink to be discovered here, but it is nice having such options spelled out.
The background music plays with the mood of the place, changing from Sinatra at cocktail hour to jazz later in the evening, with Middle Eastern strands sometimes woven in. And the waiters treat you as if you are at a party, their party.
The menu offers uncomplicated dishes seasoned with a light hand. First courses are primarily the Middle Eastern trinity -- tabouleh, baba ghanouj and hummus -- either alone or combined as a mezze special. There are also ground lamb kufta, falafel, buttered mushrooms, yogurt dip, grilled eggplant and a few salads. Main dishes are kebabs of chicken, lamb, beef, kufta, shrimp or swordfish, each accompanied by kebab of vegetables (which can also be ordered alone) and yellow rice with almonds and raisins. Or kebabs can top a salad of romaine with mint, parsley, scallions and pita croutons. Not much of the menu changes, except the "mixed grill," which one night might combine the shrimp and the swordfish. At lunch the main dishes are mostly under $6. At dinner, portions and prices increase to $8 to $12 for the platters. In all, a meal can be quite reasonable.
The food at Skewers has a fresh, light character. The hummus and baba ghanouj aren't powerfully flavored but taste of pure simplicity. They are not as lemony and garlicky as we have grown to expect in other Middle Eastern restaurants, but they are immensely pleasant, with a texture both airy and rough, and all the qualities of a dish just made. Furthermore, they are stylishly served, smoothed into petal shapes with an olive in the center and crunchy green tabouleh spooned into a leaf of red cabbage.
Kufta is the most highly seasoned dish Skewers prepares, the very juicy oval meatballs combined with onion and pine nuts, then grilled to a charcoal crustiness. As an appetizer, it is stuffed into pita to make a sandwich, with lettuce, tomato and a very delicate tahini sauce. The other appetizers come with wedges of warmed pita wrapped in a napkin.
Main dishes are nicely grilled after being mildly marinated. The beef is tender if not very flavorful; lamb and chicken are also tender and similarly subtle. All the meats are a little dry, though nicely browned. Shrimp and swordfish retain more moistness, and the shrimp carry more aroma of garlic. If these are not kebabs to reminisce about, they are nevertheless appealing, particularly on their bed of curry-scented yellow rice with the crunch of almonds and the sweetness of raisins. (The waitress was so adamant about our not ordering the pasta, which is an alternative to rice, that we would have seemed suspicious if we had pursued the possibility. Besides, we loved the rice and couldn't resist ordering it every time.) The same kebabs don't gain much from being served atop the insufficiently dressed salad.
You can order the kebabs as pita sandwiches downstairs in L'Express and eat them at indoor tables or at the few outdoor tables, or take them home. The kufta burger is a juicy sandwich and a particularly good value. And "Steak in a Sack" is a wonderful goo of thinly shaved beef, onions and tahini, reminiscent of gyros. Along with the carryout items (from cereal and milk to french fries) are some particularly nice fruits (ripe melon, combinations of berries) to complete a meal. L'Express is a cheerful self-service eatery, with nice details extending to the sunny plastic trays.
Skewers neither attempts to be nor is a gastronomic palace. But it is a spirited restaurant that is witty and urbane, and feeds you pleasantly without undo effort on either your part or the kitchen's. ::