Unrated during the pandemic
More than two decades covering the Washington dining scene hasn’t completely jaded me, though. Take a recent dinner in Northern Virginia, where a trio of us were mulling menu selections. My mouth almost dropped when our waiter uttered something no server has volunteered, anywhere.
“Order a few dishes at a time if you want,” he said. “No rush.”
I checked my phone for a news alert. Had the pope eloped, too?
For years now, servers have been instructing diners to place their entire order at once, per the kitchen’s preference, a request (demand?) that invariably includes mention of food coming to the table as it’s ready. What’s best for the chef isn’t necessarily beneficial to the diner. I can’t be the only customer who has played along with the house rule only to see everything arrive in a crush, or conversely, to experience epic pauses between plates.
None of the above is ever an issue at Zenola in Vienna, Va., a Mediterranean restaurant with a Lebanese lilt opened a year before the pandemic by chef Samer Zeitoun. Even if his kibbeh nayyeh and branzino weren’t the prizes they are, I’d be sending you to his dining destination. First, there’s the design surprise behind its ordinary facade in a shopping center. Zenola brims with style and comfort, from the scooped blue chairs and mustard-colored banquettes that encourage lingering to the porthole-like mirrors that dress the walls and the distinctive bowls and plates that convey the food. Better still, the staff could double as mind readers, so good are they at anticipating your every whim or need. Zenola is the kind of place where two of you might be encouraged to sit at a four-top, so as to enjoy more elbow room as dinner unfolds.
Wherever on the menu you see eggplant or lamb, think of it as a green light. Everything I’ve tried starring either (or both) has been something to swoon over. Among the spreads, roasted eggplant stands out for being so much more than the mashed vegetable, served with Marcona almonds for crunch, dates for unexpected sweetness and feta cheese for tang. Ground lamb finds its way, along with rice and parsley, into a small boat of zucchini that sails to the table on a tomato sauce enlightened with lemon juice and strained before serving, leading to a thin but bright elixir.
First among equals, though, is the glistening kibbeh nayyeh, minced raw lamb and cracked wheat colored by red peppers, seasoned with mint and basil and staged as a round with hot pita bread and white rosettes of whipped garlic. (Is there a better condiment than toum? I think not. Just keep some breath mints on hand for afterward.)
Born in Beirut, Zeitoun, 62, came to the United States in 1988, and with a brother opened Cafe Paradiso in Washington’s Woodley Park, which closed six years ago. The name of his Vienna restaurant incorporates the first two letters of his three daughters’ names: Zeina, Noha and Lara. Noha watches over the dining room as mistress of ceremonies while the chef’s wife, Ragheda, assists with salads and sweets. Ragheda’s participation results in such draws as stuffed grape leaves, little bigger than a child’s finger, and creamy cheesecake, set apart from the pack by a crust made with dates and ground pistachios.
When the chef gutted the previous occupant, Le Canard, to create something fresh, he made sure to install a window framing the dining room in the rear kitchen. “I want to see customers, if they’re happy,” Zeitoun says. Did he see us making short work of the snowy-fleshed roasted branzino, paired with a smooth tahini sauce and potatoes zapped with saffron and garlic? Could he hear diners marvel in the presence of his ethereal lasagna, layers of paper-thin pasta stuffed with eggplant, spinach and mushrooms and fragrant with truffle butter? I hope so.
The owner’s view also takes in his staff. “I look to see if waiters are doing their jobs.”
He needn’t worry. His is a small shop with a big heart, and lucky you if Nick Kennedy is your server. As we’re considering two wines, he makes it easy when he brings out two generous samples. There’s no asking for serving utensils, because dishes come with them, and when we opt for a single dessert, Zeitoun delivers a second one — on the house and just because. We are happy with the gift, a cloud of pastry cream flavored by orange blossom water sporting a crown of shredded phyllo and a ruby garnish of rose blossom jam.
Too good to be true? The hummus could use more garlic, the tabbouleh more mint. I have mixed feelings about the mixed grill, but only because the beef kabob shoots blanks. Everything else on the platter — herbed baby chicken brushed with lamb fat, stubby (and juicy) lamb kefta, a rousing red pepper dip — deserves your attention, and the feast, which picks up the scent of its charcoal fire, is trailed with terrific grilled vegetables, tangy artichokes included, and fluffy, saffron-yellow rice.
And to think Zeitoun sold his house and moved into an apartment to keep Zenola open early in the pandemic.
I have another surprise for you: This is the rare dining destination where you can hear yourself think, possibly because Zenola has played to less than a full house when I’ve dropped in. Here’s my uncommon hope it gets louder, if only because the talent behind the hospitality deserves some TLC, too.
132 Branch Rd. SE, Vienna, Va. 571-407-5203. zenolavienna.com. Open: Inside dining and takeout 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $9 to $18, main courses $28 to $65 (mixed grill for two). Sound check: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff are all vaccinated; masks are optional.