NAKEYSA -- 1564 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-337-6500. Open: Sunday through Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m. MC, V. Reservations accepted. No separate non-smoking section. No liquor license. Prices: appetizers $1.75 to $4.50, entrees $6.50 to $11.95. Full dinner with tax and tip about $15 to $20 per person.
IN WASHINGTON WE HAVE ABUNdant opportunity to become old hands at new cuisines. We've learned to distinguish watts from alichas at Ethiopian restaurants. Afghanistan's aushak has become commonplace to us. We've become bored with repetitious Thai chicken and basil. And anywhere else it might sound affected to boast of having found a Persian menu that transcends the usual kebabs.
But now we've got Nakeysa, with a Persian menu that goes beyond the dozen others I've tried in Washington over the years. In fact, one of the pleasures of dining at Nakeysa is sitting near the window and watching passersby examine the menu quizzically. That's what drew me in -- I'd never tasted zereshk polo.
Nakeysa seems to have sprouted overnight, a pretty little restaurant in the middle of Georgetown where no restaurant was before. The dining room looks well dressed, with soft flickering lights against pink and burgundy tablecloths, brick-edged arches and brick walls displaying a few paintings and artifacts. Bowls of garden flowers and soulful music -- tapes of violin and piano playing Middle Eastern songs -- bring all the senses into the romantic mood.
Prices are so low that two could dine for less than $25. At first glance I figured that even if the food was nothing special, Nakeysa would be a find.
After one meal, I immediately called an Iranian friend and invited him to try it. When I returned with him, I discovered that the chef is a locally famous kebab master who had gone to California and then was brought back by Iranian friends in New York who wanted to open a restaurant in Washington. Are you still with me? The story is perhaps only of interest to Iranians, except that it helps to explain why such a gem appeared unexpectedly, and in a spot where it would have to struggle to get a liquor license (at last check, it hadn't succeeded).
It also explains why the food is so good, and why it draws so many Iranians -- three-generation families with grandmothers in babushkas as well as sleekly elegant young couples.
If Nakeysa still has no liquor license, take advantage of the motivation to sample dough (pronounced doogh), a refreshing Persian beverage of yogurt thinned with seltzer and ice and flavored with mint. It's a close relation to India's salty version of lassi, and Nakeysa makes the best dough I've tasted. Do I hear derision at the idea that one yogurt drink could be distinctly better than another? Don't judge hastily. Nakeysa's is made with thick homemade yogurt, and the proportions are just right. There's also a too-watery, bland sour-cherry juice available.
Once you've been persuaded to sip yogurt, think about eggplant. Among Nakeysa's appetizers are two eggplant pastes. Both are luscious, but I'd give the edge to kashke bademjan -- saute'ed eggplant, chunky and rich, skeined with yogurt and sprinkled with olive oil, mint and onions fried as crisp as potato chips. Otherwise, the appetizers are limited to mild, rustic-looking stuffed grape leaves and yogurt dips -- one with cucumber and mint, the other thick with almost equal proportions of yogurt and finely minced shallots. (The yogurt and shallot dip, by the way, makes a startling and wonderful condiment for the main dishes.) You can also start with a salad, the most unusual being romaine leaves to dip into a house-made minted vinegar syrup.
Other beginning possibilities are two soups, both thick pastes reminiscent of Tuscany's ribollita. They are mild and subtle, though we thought we detected a California touch of cilantro in these and several of the main-dish stews.
Another California touch -- sun-dried tomatoes -- has been added to my favorite Persian dish, fesenjan, a dark thick stew flavored with pomegranate juice and walnuts, very sweet and rather tart. Nakeysa's fesenjan is authentically made with duck (chicken is more commonly used in restaurants here), but the duck is rather skimpy. It's also as sweet as dessert, so while delicious, it is best ordered as part of a shared meal rather than as a lone entree.
Besides, at Nakeysa I'd pass up even the fesenjan for the kebabs. They are sensational. Their marinade is mild but definitely perceptible, and the meat is cooked to a juicy turn over charcoal. Barg is skewered slices of tender beef, woodsy and aromatic. Ground meat -- koobideh -- is spicier and onion-flecked, handled lightly enough that the meat remains tender and juicy. Boneless chicken has the tang of lime, its edges crusty and its interior moist. There are other beef kebabs as well as grilled Cornish game hen. All are served on platters of glistening white rice and garnished with grill-charred vegetables. At the table you can sprinkle the meat and rice with tangy powdered sumac, and for even more authenticity you can order a raw egg yolk to mix with the rice and sumac.
Of course, if you don't take a large enough group of companions, you'll never get to that zereshk polo, the dish that first drew me into Nakeysa. It's a mound of rice studded with imported dried cranberries and piled over stewed chicken. The bursts of sour berries are a delicious contrast to the steamy rice and chicken. Shirin polo is another rice-fruit combination, the rice tossed with yellow-tinged almonds, bright green pistachios and strands of soft fragrant orange peel, all moistened with a flowery sweet lime syrup. It is like eating spring, but it is so sweet that you might want to order yogurt or pickles as a side dish for contrast. Also available are thick, earthy vegetarian stews. There's rice with fava beans, spinach and kidney beans, split peas and tomatoes (all available in meat versions also). They are spiked with tart dried lemon powder, dried limes or dill, plus a snipping of flat-leaf parsley. And again, that cilantro sometimes sneaks in.
The desserts are pure Persian, which means syrupy and intensely sweet. Strong, bitter-edged Persian tea is a welcome antidote.
While the menu may seem exotic and mysterious, the staff is so communicative and hospitable that you're made to feel at home with it. Nakeysa is a family business, and the staff knows the food. I wouldn't have thought Washington needed one more Persian restaurant, but it certainly needs one as inviting as Nakeysa.