LEBANESE TAVERNA -- 2641 Connecticut Ave. NW. 265-8681. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for six or more. Separate non-smoking section. Complimentary parking after 6 p.m. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.25 to $4.75, entrees $4.25 to $9.75; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 per person.
WASHINGTON SUMMERS only tease us with the possibility of dining outdoors. Too often the heat and humidity sap the pleasure from the attempt. We need an air-conditioned picnic.
And that's what it feels like at Lebanese Taverna, the new in-town branch of Arlington's popular little pizza-parlor-turned-taverna. The walls are the color of sand and reach to arches that suggest a courtyard. Potted trees hint of gardens, etchings and photos of old Lebanon establish the cultural setting, and the open kitchen in the rear, under a scalloped copper awning, is as lively as an open-air market.
On a weekend evening the hubbub is loud, the mood exuberant. So if you are looking for quiet, you'll need to find another time or place.
Waiters wear the festive, patterned vests sold everywhere in Middle Eastern markets and serve with a panache that combines host and master of ceremonies. They also know how to rush around the dining room at top speed when necessary, and keep smiling through it all.
A Lebanese dinner is at its best a group activity, because with a tableful of people you can order a proper mezze -- an array of appetizers that can be a prelude to dinner or dinner itself -- mostly served in charming handmade pottery bowls. The menu lists 17 appetizer possibilities, and I'd gladly choose them all. Having to narrow them down, I'd focus on pastry-wrapped cheese or spinach pies, which are nicely brittle pastry triangles with tangy fillings. They should be even better once the wood-burning oven is in operation. The meat choices are also special -- tiny spicy sausages called maanek, swimming in lemon butter; milder beef patties called sujok, saute'ed in tomato sauce; the raw lamb and cracked wheat paste called kibbeh nayeh; and the oval cooked kibbeh, its thin, even beef-wheat shell stuffed with ground lamb and nuts, showing the kind of skill that in Lebanon is said to bring a bride a good husband. The rest of the appetizers are not standouts on their own, but combine to a grand array, the mild hummus plain or topped with meat, the smooth baba ghanouj, the refreshing, minty parsley-burghul wheat tabouleh. I've been disappointed in the soggy fattoush salad and the pasty grape leaves, but they provide a pleasant enough balance if your group is large.
Beverages are interesting to explore here. In addition to the usual beers and wines, there are three vintages of direct, robust Lebanese wines that range in price from $17.50 to $25.50 per bottle (or $3.75 a glass). Ayran -- liquefied yogurt -- is powerfully rich, but also refreshing, and there is a raisin-date drink that tastes like extra-sweet iced tea. The best, though, is the house-made lemonade.
To accompany the meal, there is, of course, pita bread, served warm and wrapped in a napkin. But there are other flat breads that show up with some of the main dishes. Presumably, when the wood-burning oven is working there will be more, as well as some pizza-like dishes. Even now, a falafel sandwich is wrapped in a house-made version of the familiar pita, and a huge paper-thin pale bread comes wrapped around the kafta mechwi and the rotisserie chicken.
That rotisserie chicken is the best main dish I've tried, its skin crisp and fairly tingling with spices, the meat moist and tender. Chicken is also handled with respect in a kebab, shish taouk, lemony from its marinade and its edges browned but the meat not overcooked. Not so with lamb or beef. Shawarma (called gyros or donner kebab elsewhere) is dry and chewy. The lamb shish kebab has a winning tart marinade, but the meat is as tough and dry as the shawarma; even the ground meat kafta, though assertively spiced, suffers from overcooking. Ouzi (stewed lamb with rice) and fattah blahmeh (stewed lamb over toasted pita in yogurt sauce) fare much better, since such meats are supposed to be overcooked. But you have a better chance with seafood. Peppered red snapper is succulent in its soft walnut-lemon sauce, and shrimp kebabs are large shrimp smoky from the grill yet still juicy. A neutral background of rice pilaf accompanies most dishes.
Turkish coffee is a sufficiently sweet ending. It is dark and thick, syrupy and delicious. The heavy, doughy baklava may not be the most cloying you've had, but probably will come close. There are two snowy white puddings, one made of rice and the other described as whipped cream, but like the baklava these are also awash in honeyed syrup. I think you have to be Lebanese to appreciate them.
Lebanese Taverna needs more than its promise of a wood-burning oven to win culinary glory; its food tastes better in a conglomeration of dishes than dish by dish. But the combinations enhance each other -- mild, spicy, tart, crisp, oozing, hot, cold -- by their contrasts. And they add up to a good meal, just as the addition of Lebanese Taverna enhances summer in the city.