-- 765-C Rockville Pike, Rockville. 340-6970. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.25 to $3.95, entrees $6.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $14 to $28 per person.
JUDGING FROM THE SCENT OF petroleum byproducts wafting through Washington's air these days, you'd think there were oil refineries on the Mall. The peculiar aroma actually comes from thousands of cans of starter fluid being squirted on charcoal grills as Washingtonians practice an annual rite of summer: burning meat in the back yard. It's a nice communal ritual, but sometimes it's even nicer to enjoy char-broiled food without having to wash smoke out of your hair or scoop up the ashes after an overnight rain.
You could, for example, leave the grilling to the professionals in a Middle Eastern restaurant, who, after all, have had years of experience in this kind of cooking. A nice place to do it is Papa John's, a little Persian restaurant where the specialties -- and just about the only main dishes on the menu -- are kebabs.
Papa John's is sparely decorated but pretty, close-tabled but cozy, a square little room whose gentle lighting and soft acoustics make it seem inviting even on a busy night. Persian prints and photos grace the simple white walls, and peach-toned linens add to the warm feeling. There's warmth from the servers too, and watchful supervision by the owner. Prices are moderate, although this is not a place for terrific bargains.
As in many Middle Eastern restaurants, the appetizers at Papa John's tend Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on vacation. to be more varied and interesting than the entrees. The appetizer standouts here are two gorgeous purees, eaten on wedges of warm pita bread: must-o esfenach, a smooth, beautifully flavored mixture of spinach, yogurt, olive oil and lemon juice; and kashk-o bademjan, in which an eggplant puree takes the place of the spinach. You don't like spinach or eggplant, you say? Leave those prejudices at the door and let these two Middle Eastern beauties seduce you. Yogurt shines again in the refreshing if less spectacular cucumber dish called must-o kheyar, similar to the Indian raita -- and, like raita, best eaten as an accompaniment to the entrees. Hummus fans may come to blows over whether Papa John's unusually gentle version -- very easy on the garlic, oil and lemon -- is subtle or just plain bland. We're in the subtle camp (it's nice to actually taste the sesame for a change), but even so, we've found that an extra squeeze of lemon at the table doesn't hurt. Tabbouleh, the cold bulgur wheat salad, is often mouth-puckeringly tart in restaurants, but at Papa John's it's nicely balanced -- light on the lemon juice, so you can taste the wheat, parsley, onion and olive oil. An occasional appetizer special is grape leaves stuffed with a rice/ground meat mixture -- a very good version of dolmades.
The soups here, which change from day to day, are robust, rich beauties not to be missed. Several of them, built on what tastes like a lamb stock laced with garlic, practically define what a good country soup ought to be. And lately there's been a wonderful, old-fashioned chicken-barley soup that one's grandmother might have made -- if she had been a great cook.
All of Papa John's kebabs are first-class. High-quality meats, well-marinated in spices and oil, are grilled with a watchful eye so they turn out lightly charred on the surface and juicy within. (Sometimes that watchful eye blinks -- on a few occasions, the meats have been decidedly dry.) All the kebabs come with excellent, nutty-tasting basmati rice, tender yet firm and separate. Even the accompanying grilled vegetables -- onion, pepper, tomato -- are beautifully done, properly softened yet still lively.
There are two kebabs with sirloin: kebab-e chenjeh, in chunk form, and kebab-e barg, a slightly flattened version. Both are excellent, with deep-down beef flavor. Kebab-e kubideh is a cylinder of marvelously seasoned ground beef, lean and spiked with plenty of onion and garlic; at $6.95, it's the least expensive entree, and a good buy. The most expensive kebab, at $13.95, is kebab-e barreh, chunks of nicely juicy lamb loin, including the bone. And the souvlaki, made with chunks of lean pork loin, is an uncommonly good rendition of this common dish.
There are three poultry kebabs: Kebab-e morgh is commendably moist chicken breast; jujeh kebab is cornish game hen, nicely succulent but with an overcharred skin both times we tried it; and kebab-e kabk is quail, which seems to be done with more finesse than the cornish hen. You might predict that fish would be the weak link in a kebab house, and in the case of Papa John's you'd be right. The grilled trout is decent but unremarkable, a tad dry and without a lot of flavor. There's usually a nice-but-ordinary grilled salmon too -- not bad, but hardly a match for the meats. An occasional special is ghormeh sabzi, a spinach and beef stew with kidney beans, surprisingly flat-tasting compared with that marvelous spinach appetizer.
Papa John's has a short wine list, but it does include a 1987 Domaine St. George cabernet -- big-bodied, complex, inky-dark -- that makes a marvelous match for the meats.
The top dessert here is the superb house-made baklava, a spare, restrained, nicely dry version that goes easy on the honey so you can really taste the butter, cinnamon, cardamom and nuts. (It's best when they've just baked a batch -- even this baklava suffers from sitting too long.) A close runner-up is the Persian ice cream, semisoft and creamy, made with saffron, pistachios and a touch of rosewater. Phaloudeh is a strange but refreshing dessert, an exotic snow cone made with crushed ice and crisp rice noodles flavored with lemon and cherry syrups. We found the rollet, a yellow cake with whipped cream, undistinguished, and the zulbia-bamieh, a Persian version of funnel cake made with fried flour and honey, excruciatingly sweet.
Eating in a restaurant like this could inspire you to spend two more months out in the yard perfecting your kebab recipe. Or you could just add Papa John's to your list, donate the old kettle grill to Goodwill and get back to cooking pasta. It would certainly improve the air around here.