CEILOV -- 116 E. FAIRFAX ST., FALLS CHURCH. 703-237-4777. Open: daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cash or checks only. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $2 to $3.50, entrees $5 to $9. Full dinner with beverage, tax and tip $11 to $20 per person.
Add one more cuisine to the 50-plus we have already. Ceilov is said to be the Washington area's first Kurdish restaurant, and one of only a handful in the country. But surely we'll be hearing more of such dishes as tepsi, kubba, quoozie and pa chah.
Like most first-of-a-kind immigrant restaurants, this is a bare-bones storefront with one family playing all the roles. Ceilov is at the end of a strip mall, with a butcher shop just a few steps away to fill any unanticipated orders for lamb kidney or heart. The dozen or so tables share the dining room with a glass-fronted refrigerator case, its shelves displaying soft drinks (Ceilov has no liquor license yet) and bowls of pickled vegetables. A decorative mirror leaning against a wall suggests more embellishments to come, but already the bareness is somewhat relieved by a few niceties: The floor is carpeted, the chairs have high backs in glossy dark wood, and the tables are topped with tiny candles in blue glass holders and small bunches of wildflowers. In case the descriptions of the food don't resonate with you, there are photos of the dishes on the menu and in the window. Still uncertain? Then there's Ali.
Despite a menu offering four soups and 15 entrees, Ceilov is pretty much a one-man show. Ali Shali is the owner, the host, the entertainer, the teacher, the cook and the main waiter. His wife, Najiveh, makes the pastries and performs the rest of the kitchen work. Their 3-year-old daughter pretends to take orders or knead dough when she's not clutching the legs of one parent or the other. Only on occasion is another employee seen helping out in the kitchen or clearing the tables.
The important message in this is that Ceilov is no place to be in a hurry. There's Ali explaining how he sews the lamb's stomach lining to make the weekend special of pa chah, which is clear broth with that rice-stuffed stomach and bony bits of lamb floating alongside. Or Ali is talking with a group of friends who've settled in for the evening, and bringing yogurt and rice for a man to feed his baby while Daddy's meal is being prepared. Or maybe he's explaining to another compatriot that he doesn't take credit cards yet, and pointing the way to an ATM. To newcomers he is boasting of picking his own vegetables and not cooking with anything that's canned or frozen.
Ceilov would make for a fascinating evening even if it didn't serve food.
But eventually it does, and some of it is memorable. A few dishes are so plain that you can imagine them being served in a tent in the desert. While it's hard to anticipate that a dish called quoozie could be anything so simple as unadorned boiled lamb shank over white rice, that's what it is. Even so, at least one Kurdish taxi driver in the District is so fond of it that he drives to Falls Church to get it. Soups tend to be bland lentils or beans or spinach, in need of even salt. But Ali will point you to tepsi, a grand, aromatic soup-stew of sliced potatoes, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes layered in a tangy, rich tomato broth.
The absolutely most expensive dish on the menu is so elaborate it must be ordered 24 hours in advance, and it's worth your planning ahead. It's a whole chicken, $20 for two or $38 for four people, deboned and stuffed with rice, raisins and almonds, trussed and baked until it's golden and crusty. Its skin is so fragrant and lemony with citric acid that even when the breast meat is overcooked to crumbling, it's irresistible. Rice with raisins and almonds is a theme repeated almost as seductively in briahni -- the mound of rice studded with chicken or lamb and hidden under an omelet wrapper. For other dishes, rice is served on the side, sprinkled with darkly browned thin noodles.
The rest of the entrees are divided into dumplings, stews and kebabs. Those grilled lamb or chicken kebabs and the gyro have a vinegar tang and the fragrance of sweet Kurdish spices, but they are about as dry and chewy as you'd expect from a $5 or $6 meat entree. Far more interesting are the dumplings -- called kubba. Kubba halab is made with a rice-and-potato dough that, under its crusty surface, is reminiscent of Chinese sticky rice. At its heart is a filling of chopped lamb and onions with a haunting green herb called karoffus and plenty of black pepper. It's the kind of hearty snack you'd love to find in your refrigerator on a winter evening. Though the lamb filling is the same, sour kubba probably has less universal appeal. I loved its tart tomato broth with chunks of baby eggplant, celery and green beans crowding the cracked-wheat dumplings, but those same dumplings simply pan-fried as kubba burghel are probably a safer bet. As for the vegetables Ali brags about, they're stuffed with a spicier herbed-lamb filling and stewed in a tomato broth until they collapse at a touch.
Most of the accompaniments are spare -- a chopped salad with no seasoning except vinegar and oil to be applied at the table, those mounds of rice and a la carte dishes of intensely salty and horseradish-spiked pickles. They're all bit players, though. The triumph here is the bread. It's the Kurdish version of India's naan and a regal cousin of white pizza, wonderfully fragrant with yeast and smoke, its thin, blistered surface giving way to a soft, chewy interior. It's bread for sopping up sauces and wrapping around grilled meat, yet it is bread so good that it could make a meal on its own.
Desserts here are house-made, but Ceilov's "true baklava" is a lesson in how intense sweetness can be. The availability of its stuffed cookies depends on the vicissitudes of the Shalis' family life. The inevitable ending to a meal, though, is tea. Ali serves it with ceremony in small hourglass-shaped glasses with a tiny spoon. It looks innocent, but be warned that it's powerful stuff, the tea version of Turkish coffee. As with much about Ceilov, you won't forget it soon.
Sailing From Atlantico: Though he's barely 30, chef Jose Ramon Andres has figured it's time to move on. After garnering great praise at Cafe Atlantico, last week he turned that kitchen over to sous-chefs Christy Velie and Katsuya Fukushima. Andres continues as the chef and a partner at Jaleo, with plans to open his own restaurant sometime in the future. "I'm not in a rush," he says.
Waste Not, Want Not: Running a restaurant is an exercise in flexibility and creativity. When Il Ritrovo in Bethesda recently underwent a face lift, owner Angelo Dell'Oro decided to use leftover dough from the restaurant's breadmaking to redecorate the dining room. He bakes bits of dough in various shapes and nails them to the wall. By now there are dozens of baked designs: bows, trees, hearts, an Eiffel Tower, flowers, crabs, lobsters and baskets. Since the dough rises in unpredictable ways, the bread decorations serve a second function as well, a conversational one. Christine Declerfay, one of the kitchen staff, explained, "You pretty much guess what it is, and you talk about it." -- P.C.R.