MOBY DICK HOUSE OF KABOB -- 1070 31st St. NW. 202-333-4400. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Cash only. No reservations. No smoking. Prices: sandwiches $3.75 to $5.55, entrees $4.95 to $10.95. (Other locations: 7027 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-1838; 6854 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, 703-448-8448.)
GEORGE'S TOWNHOUSE RESTAURANT -- 1205 28th St. NW. 202-342-2278. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Closed Sunday. Cash or personal check. Reservations accepted. No separate nonsmoking section. Prices: sandwiches $3.50 to $4.75, entrees $3.75 to $6.95.
Ethnic restaurants were once an urban phenomenon. But in recent decades the suburbs have increasingly become the first stop for immigrant populations, so the most exotic cuisines often are introduced outside the city, then work their way into the center. Moby Dick is a typical example. This Persian kebab restaurant started in Bethesda -- taking over the name as well as the location of a small luncheonette and carryout -- and has now opened branches in Georgetown and McLean. Who knows? Maybe it's a harbinger of kebab restaurants ready to thickly populate the city.
It's easier to get a parking space in Georgetown than to cadge a seat at one of Moby Dick's two tables or the counter at lunchtime. With only 14 chairs available, most people carry out.
It's hardly an ambitious place. The menu is on the wall -- a series of color pictures with short descriptions. Except for a few salads in the deli case and some odd sandwiches not depicted, the repertoire consists of kebabs -- spicy ground-meat kubideh, cubed chicken jujeh, lamb barreh, beef chenjeh or my favorite, large chunks of swordfish with wedges of onion. They are cooked over charcoal, served with either rice or pita bread and priced from $4.95 to $10.95. The rice is Persian style, with saffron-orange grains mixed in with the white, topped with tangy powdered sumac and a lump of butter. The bread is baked before your eyes.
That bread is the drawing card at Moby Dick. It's made to order, all day long, in a blue tiled tandoor oven wedged into the tiny kitchen behind the counter where you place your order. The bread maker apportions and weighs balls of dough, then rolls them out one at a time, scores them so they don't balloon in the oven, stretches them to fit over a large white cushion and then -- using that cushion as a kind of puffy potholder -- slaps them against the sides of the oven. In a few minutes, when the flat breads are browned and blistered, he removes them and hangs them up to cool. The process is hypnotic, and the resulting bread has a fragrant wheatiness. Even so, it is not quite as wonderful -- not as thin, or as blistered -- as that made in the original Bethesda location.
Still, these big rounds of flat bread make a pleasantly filling wrapper for the kebabs, which are as lean as one could wish, well marinated and crisp-edged from the open grill. They're generously portioned, and grilled carefully so they're cooked through but not dried out. Yogurt with cucumbers and herbs or a salad of chopped tomato and cucumber comes along free, but if you want to add a side dish, try kashk-o-bademjan, the thick, yogurt-based eggplant paste, which you can order hot or cold. And Moby Dick's hummus -- rough-textured and lemony -- puts others' to shame. To drink, there are bottled sodas and a fresh or bottled (and carbonated) version of doogh, the refreshing Persian yogurt drink, with or without mint. For the really adventurous, the deli case also offers pickled garlic cloves, but by American standards a container would probably last long enough to keep vampires at bay for the entire winter. That's apparently not true for the owners, since the main decorative element at Moby Dick is gallon jars of pickled garlic cloves -- 32 jars at last count -- that line the walls of the dining area.
If Moby Dick is too crowded, you can go for Lebanese kebabs, heading down M Street to the recently expanded George's Townhouse Restaurant. From the street it looks like nothing more than a typical town house, but inside is a self-service Lebanese cafe with a big, open, tiled kitchen and counter seats on the first floor, and a few tables in the pale blue dining room upstairs.
George's started as a cheesesteak carryout (the cheesesteaks are still good) and graduated several years ago to serving a few grilled meats and a full line of cold dishes -- hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, two kinds of excellent stuffed savory pastries, and a fava bean spread known as foul modamas. The crux of the menu is the platters and sandwiches of grilled beef, chicken or vegetables.
My favorites among the meats are kifta (well-spiced ground beef) and shawarma (thin slivers of marinated beef). And I prefer them as sandwiches -- rolled in thin pita bread so they look like jelly rolls -- even though the platters are filled out with rice pilaf, sauteed onions, a dollop of hummus, parsley and onion salad, sharp green olives and red-tinted pickled radishes. The meats themselves are chewy little cubes, their flavor far better than their texture. You don't notice so much that they're dry and chewy when they're packed into the bread along with slatherings of hummus, chopped vegetables and bits of intensely sour pickles. It's the combination that entices, a lesson reinforced by sandwich traditions from the po' boy to the Big Mac.
Even better than the meats are the vegetarian sandwiches, of highly peppered falafel -- which the cook forms with a scoop as he drops the coarse, spicy chickpea dough into hot oil -- or eggplant, which is fried until it is soft and sweet and its purple skin is crisp.
This being a Lebanese restaurant, it also has the wherewithal to create a mezze -- a meal of appetizers. The kibbe is a torpedo-shaped, two-layer type of meatball with a thin wall of meat and bulgur surrounding a filling of more meat with pine nuts. While one might admire its beautiful construction and its faintly cumin-scented flavor, it sometimes gets dried out from sitting around and being reheated. At $1.25, though, it's worth a try. The tabbouleh here is heavy on the parsley and lemon, light on the mint and bulgur. George's makes attractive triangular meat and spinach pies with a soft yeast dough and a nice tang to the filling. Add hummus, baba ghanouj and flat loaves of pita, and there you have dinner.
Nothing at George's costs more than $7. With a $4 sandwich, an appetizer of kibbe or spinach pie, fresh lemonade with orange flower water to drink ($1.75) and baklava for dessert ($1.25), you could have a three-course meal with tax and tip for less than $10. Or spend another $1.25 and splurge on a Turkish coffee.