1967 Calvert St. NW. 232-1231. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily. Prices: All entrees under $4.95. Atmosphere: Middle Eastern Cooking; leisurely but attentive service; unpretentious surroundings. Reservations: Advised at dinner.Credit Cards: None. Personal Checks accepted. Special facilities: Can accommodate wheelchair patrons, no children's menu, but entrees can be split; on-steet parking.
The sign out front says the Calvert Cafe, but everyone calls it Mama Ayesha's, after the little gray-haired lady who has run this popular Middle Eastern restaurant near the Calvert Street Bridge for 18 years.
Mama habitually sets up her command post at the booth nearest the kitchen door, where she can keep an eye on business or slip into the kitchen to check a pot of simmering couscous. Much of the time she talks in low, heavily accented tones with visitors who stop by her table. She smiles and grasps the hands of friends, inducing them to have a cup of thick Turkish coffee with her.
Aside from the charms of the proprietor, the lure of the Calvert Cafe for its longtime customers is its consistently good food at low prices-and its absolute predictability. Through the years, it doesn't change. Nobody tampers with the menu, rearranges the tables or slicks up the decor. It is low-key and unpretentious.
Our family held favorable memories of the Calvert Cafe from a visit nearly two years ago. On a return trip recently, we were reassured when we spotted Mama holding forth in her customary corner and saw the same pictures on the wall and the familiar red and gold cloths on the tables. Even the staff hadn't changed much.
We were accompanied through the dining room by the tinny tambourine beat of taped Middle Eastern music.
The smell of roasting lamb and warm bread wafted around us, working us all into a frenzy. We ordered quickly, which is easy to do since the menu is mercifully short: three appetizers, a couple of salads, about 10 main dishes and three desserts.
Only the prices were new: Lamb chops and shish kebab had gone from $3.95 to $4.95, and the broiled chicken, the only non-lamb offering, also had gone up a dollar, to $4.
If the Calvert Cafe hadn't changed much in the intervening years, the family had. The burgeoning appetites of the kids now ruled out dinner splitting, and no longer could my husband and I keep the Houmous to ourselves.
Houmous is the Middle Eastern answer to onion dip, only better. It is a mix of mashed chick peas, sesame paste, garlic, lemon and parsley, which you scoop onto pieces of warm pita bread. However, its unfortunate resemblance to pale mud drove the kids, two years earlier, to stare in horror while their parents indulged in a small order.
This time, we graduated to a large order-for four. (The Baba Ghanouj, similar to houmous, using eggplant instead of chick peas, also is excellent.)
Our oldest daughter chose the kifta as her main course. This is ground lamb tossed with onion, parsley and spices, rolled into ovals, charcoal broiled and served over rice. It's a pungent but pleasant dish for $4.25.
Daughter number two had the shish kebab, which included marinated lamb, tomatoes and onion cooked over charcoal. Her favorite part of the meal, however, was the rice, cooked in chicken broth. Sometimes, thin pieces of macaroni are mixed with the rice to give it a smoother texture.
Couscous is a traditional dish of the Middle East, and Mama Ayesha does her part to uphold its honorable reputation. My husband again chose this savory stew made with braised lamb, crushed wheat, carrots, onions and chunks of eggplant, $4. Try it on a cold winter evening.
I found happiness in my grape leaves stuffed with rice, ground lamb and spices, $4. But the special Arabian salad, made of tomato, cucumber and parsley awash in sesame dressing, didn't measure up to Mama Ayesha's other delights.
The children ordered their all-time favorite pastry for dessert; honey-filled, ultra-sweet baklava. When their father ordered the bird's nest, a pistachio pastry, the waiter solemnly nixed it, saying it was "nothing, too dry. Have the ramoura (a cheese pastry)-very good." He was right.
Our bill for everything, including wine and tip, came to $33.25, up from $26.15 two years before, but still a fair price considering the nonstop growth in inflation and the kids.
(Note: Mama Ayesha is willing to create certain special Lebanese and Middle Eastern dishes upon request. Ask the host or the waiter what is available.)