Before you sink your teeth into Fava Pot's charred, almost blackened, Cornish hen, before you revel in the fire and earth of its koshary bowl, and before you bite into its succulent, sumac-scented kofta, you need to perform a small ritual at this Falls Church restaurant: You need to forgive the kitchen its flatbread.
At least for now. By the end of January or early February, chef and owner Dina Daniel should have her new $14,000 oven in place. It will allow her to ditch the baked pita chips, these woody specimens that accompany numerous dishes, and start baking her own aish baladi, the pillowy flatbread at the center of the Egyptian table.
"The bread, it's the main thing in any restaurant," says the native Egyptian. "I have to have the aish baladi."
To understand the importance of aish baladi to Egyptians, you need to understand the words themselves. "Aish baladi" simply means "village bread." But the word "aish" can be translated as either "bread" or "life," as if the terms are interchangeable in the hearts and minds of this community.
Even a cursory review of Egypt's history reveals its deep connection to bread and wheat, the essential element to almost any loaf. In ancient Egypt, wheat was both ingredient and legal tender. More recently, bread (and the government's subsidies of it) has been a source of recurring tension in a country where arable land is a precious commodity. There are even dangers today: Young men, with racks of aish baladi balanced on their heads, navigate their bikes through the mean streets of Cairo just to make sure the people get their daily bread.
If any country can stake a claim to the proverb "bread is life," it is Egypt.
Does this mean, then, that an Egyptian restaurant without aish baladi is lifeless? That it offers an essentially soulless version of a vital cuisine? It seemed a question worth entertaining. After numerous visits to the restaurant and some tortured ruminating on the subject, I have concluded this: Even without the famous flatbread for the first several months of its existence, Fava Pot has the soul of a pharaoh.
Of course, I should also add: I can't await for Daniel's aish baladi to replace those nasty third-party-baked chips.
Located in a free-standing building in the parking lot of the Shops at West Falls Church, Fava Pot is a restaurant four years in the making. It is the bricks-and-mortar extension of Daniel's Fava Pot food truck, which she launched in 2013, nearly a decade after immigrating to the United States. Her Egyptian chuck wagon has been more than a business incubator: It also provided Daniel with her first chance to serve as chef, after careers in real estate, nonprofit fundraising and even the restaurant business back in Egypt.
Relying on what she learned from a Lebanese chef who worked at her Cairo restaurant, as well as the lessons from her parents' kitchen, Daniel has developed a robust menu with creative, often colorful riffs on Egyptian and Middle Eastern fare. Daniel takes pride in her ingredients, which she painstakingly lists on her website. Halal meats. Organic greens, milk and eggs. Cornish hens raised without antibiotics. She even serves local beers and wine, which hints at her Christian upbringing in a majority-Muslim country that largely abstains from alcohol.
Egyptian cuisine, with its emphasis on legumes and fresh vegetables, provides plenty of tasty grazing opportunities for vegheads. To the uninitiated, koshary might sound like a college-level pantry dump: The bowl combines lentils, rice, elbow macaroni, chickpeas and crispy onions, all tied together with a deceptively spicy tomato sauce. Each ingredient at Fava Pot supplies its own consistency and flavor. Supple pasta. Creamy rice. Pebbly lentils. Chalky chickpeas. Chefs talk about depth of flavor. This dish has depth of texture.
Those accustomed to falafel formed from ground chickpeas — the standard at places such as Amsterdam Falafelshop — might be taken aback by the fried balls at Fava Pot. Their crusty shells crack open to reveal a verdant jungle of chopped parsley, chives, cilantro and fava beans, an Egyptian's preferred base for falafel. The garlicky fritters, fried a beat too long for my tastes, are a pleasure nonetheless when dipped in tahini. I am more devoted to Fava Pot's take on ful medames, simply called "fava beans," in which the beans are slow-cooked nearly 15 hours and combined with olive oil, tahini, cumin and lime. A breakfast staple in Egypt, these favas are a treat anytime of day, if you ask me.
There are meatier amusements on the menu as well. The kofta patties, formed from ground beef and lamb, can be tucked into a pita wrap or served naked as part of a platter, with your choice of sides. I would advise the latter preparation: Without the pita insulation, you have easier access to the kofta's tangy hit of sumac. No such ordering decisions are required for the breaded veal escalope (the cutlets remain ultra-juicy under their fried armor) or the grilled chicken platter (the half Cornish hen, as blackened as Paul Prudhomme's redfish, almost begs for tomaya, a buzz saw of a sauce built with sunflower oil, lime and garlic.)
Fava Pot exudes a professionalism that is rare among such strip-center operations. Its decor includes a handsome mural that recognizes some of Egypt's famous sons and daughters. Fava Pot is also firmly rooted in the contemporary American dining scene: Everything about the place — its white plates, its Edison-bulb ambiance, its fast-casual counter service — seems designed to ease non-Egyptians into the fold. Smart.
Open since September, Fava Pot will not be fully realized until the installation of its new oven, which is likely to produce the first puffy loaves of aish baladi for many Washingtonians, myself included. Just as important, I suspect the bread pulled from the oven will instantly improve a number of dips, dishes and soups. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against Daniel's ful, her garlicky hummus or her sweet-and-savory red lentil soup. I think they deserve something better than pita chips.
7393-D Lee Highway, Falls Church, 703-204-0609, favapot.com.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; and 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Dunn-Loring/Merrifield, with a 1.5-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.90 to $9.90 for starters, soups, salads and sides. $9.95 to $27.90 for platters, bowls and signature dishes.